Pope Francis arrived in Ecuador on Monday, the first stop on his week-long visit to Latin America. The Pope is expected to draw huge crowds during his time there—79 percent of Ecuador's population is Catholic—and early reports suggest that he will keep his focus on the issues that have come to define his papacy: income inequality and, most recently, climate change.
Francis will have the ear of millions of Catholics in the coming week, including Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa. And he will, per Francis usual, be traveling with a message of cooperation and speaking across difference. “We can find in the Gospel the keys that will allow us to confront today’s challenges, appreciating our differences, fostering dialogue and participation without exclusion,” the pope said after being welcomed at the airport by Correa.
Among those challenges is one the Pope likely won't touch during his visit, but should: abortion is illegal in all but the narrowest of cases and is the second leading cause of female morbidity in the country.
While Francis has centered his papacy around notions of compassion and justice and advocating for the marginalized, reproductive health—and the real harms caused by cutting off access to essential services like abortion—remains his blindspots. Francis has shown himself capable of influencing policy (he was mostly recently hailed as instrumental in restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba), but women's rights is an issue he won't lead on.
Under current law in Ecuador, abortion is only permissible in cases of life and health endangerment—and only after all other medical efforts have been exhausted—or when a victim of rape has a mental disability. In every other case, including non-viable pregnancies and sexual violence outside the narrow exception, having an abortion can carry up to a two-year prison sentence.
The threat of criminal penalties hasn't stopped women and girls from terminating their pregnancies, but it has made doing so more dangerous. A 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report interviewed 45 medical professionals about how the law endangers the lives of women and girls, with one doctor explaining that “women don’t tell you what happened; there is fear and it is illegal. [But] women still die from induced abortion.”
And with little information about how a patient self-induced, providing necessary treatment is a challenge. Another doctor told HRW that “[p]atients don’t tell us the truth when they come in with abortions in progress. In their clinical history, they don't say they took anything.” According to the report, hospitals in Ecuador treated more than 23,000 cases of "disease, disability, or physical harm" related to “unspecified” abortions in 2011.
And despite the president's vocal opposition to abortion rights, PRI's The World noted Monday that a majority of Ecuadoreans support expanding access. A survey from 2014 found that 65 percent of Ecuadoreans support decriminalization. And reproductive rights groups in Ecuador say that’s because of the work they’re doing to help women and girls access abortion and push the procedure out of the shadows.
The public may be moving on the issue, but the law criminalizing almost all abortion remains in place, and the consequences remain dire.
Earlier this year, the Pope said the church would send priests all over the world to “absolve” women who had abortions and doctors who perform them. In his Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the official letter that introduced the idea, Francis wrote that the church should be an "oasis of mercy":
I trust that this Jubilee year celebrating the mercy of God will foster an encounter with these religions and with other noble religious traditions; may it open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination.
Catholic teaching is firmly anti-abortion—and while he’s been celebrated for telling Catholic leaders to stop being so “obsessed” with the issue, so is Pope Francis. But the Pope doesn't have to support abortion in order to recognize the harm caused by laws that criminalize abortion. A position against criminalization is simply a position against preventable injury and death, a view that is entirely consistent with the Pope's advocacy.
There is nothing compassionate about allowing women to suffer illness and death related to unsafe abortion. The church may not budge on its position on reproductive health, but with Francis shaping the direction of the church—this is a Pope who has been vocal about safe and equitable access to healthcare and ending violence and discrimination—saying "no" to the dangers of criminalization should be part of the church's stated vision of mercy.