US anti-choice groups are coordinating and financing a campaign to restrict access to abortion across Latin America and the Caribbean.
A Guardian investigation has found that organisations have poured millions of dollars into the region, which has some of the most draconian abortion laws, to combat efforts to decriminalise the termination of pregnancies and to obstruct access to clinics providing services.
In July, the Guardian reported that Human Life International (HLI), a Catholic not-for-profit group from Virginia, had given more than $600,000 (£450,000) to support its work in Central America between 2008 and 2014, and that one group in El Salvador, Fundación Sí a la Vida, had received more than $47,000 over a seven-year period.
But it has now emerged that at least two other US-based organisations – 40 Days for Life and Heartbeat International – are also training anti-choice activists, opening centres and ploughing money into the region.
Natalia Acevedo Guerrero, of Profamilia, the largest reproductive healthcare provider in Colombia, said: “We’re used to opposition. But in the last few years, we’ve seen anti-rights groups become more organised. They’ve professionalised. They aren’t old ladies with rosaries any more. They’re lawyers engaged in sophisticated discourse, they’re doing lobbying … They have money, they have people in the courts, they have people in the congress.”
Abortion is banned in countries in Latin America including the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua, with many others allowing it only in limited circumstances. But moves to liberalise laws are having some success. In August, Chile overturned its absolute ban on abortion to allow it when a women’s life is at risk, and discussions have taken place in El Salvador to do likewise.
The bulk of the US funding is being used to develop a network of “crisis pregnancy centres”, which critics claim are designed to persuade women not to have terminations. The number of centres more than doubled between 2012 and 2015, to 130.
HLI brought the crisis pregnancy centre model to Latin America in the 1980s and is one of the most active supporters of the anti-abortion movement in the region.
Between 2010 and 2015, HLI channeled more than $1.3m to anti-abortion partners in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to IRS tax documents seen by the Guardian. Over four decades, HLI has helped develop a network of groups that now spans 20 countries.
Adolfo Castañeda, HLI’s education director for Hispanic outreach, said each centre in the network operates independently, providing access to many Spanish-language “educational materials”, such as online training courses, video and radio programmes, as well as workshops and conferences.
“We do not run the network, but we collaborate strongly with it in the sense that we provide them with educational materials that the folks that work in those centres use to educate pregnant women, abortion-bound, to convince them to desist from having the abortion,” he said.
“We serve as a go-between for other organisations that have money to fund [crisis pregnancy centres],” Castañeda added. “For example, if there is a Catholic foundation that wants to donate, say, $10,000 to a [centre] in Bolivia, we help get in touch with that foundation, translate whatever forms the foundation requires and serve as a channel so that the money can go to them.”
Castañeda said HLI works with US legal advisors who provide local lobbyists and lawyers with strategies they can use “to educate and fight politically against anti-life laws and in favour of pro-life laws”.
Heartbeat International, which runs one of the largest crisis pregnancy centre networks in the US and internationally, expanded its global outreach efforts to Latin America and the Caribbean in 2013. Jay Hobbs, its marketing and communications director, said it focused on education and training “so that women in localities all over the world can have life-affirming alternatives to abortion”.
Between 2013 and 2015 it gave $15,925 to Latin American partners, according to US tax filings. It also helps receive and transfer donations from other US anti-abortion groups and individuals.
Reproductive healthcare providers and rights advocates in Colombia, where these organisations are establishing a stronghold, said many of the centres are built to look like regular clinics. The director of a legal abortion clinic in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, who asked not to be named, said her staff had documented multiple cases of patients mistakenly visiting local crisis pregnancy centres, where anti-abortion activists “made them feel guilty, stigmatised, harassed and pressured to continue their pregnancies”.
“Misinformation is a way to create barriers and obstacles to access,” said Cristina Rosero Arteaga, a lawyer with advocacy group Women’s Link Worldwide.
“There are lots of women who don’t know their rights. Our concern is that women need to have access to information that is true and not distorted.”
Katharine O’Brien, from the Texas-based 40 Days for Life, which has been working in the region since 2011, said the centres were vital: “It’s just so simple. The amount of training that is required to really be inspired by this is very little. You can explain that in one session.”
O’Brien trains locals on how to lead “prayerful” clinic protests. Activists are trained in “sidewalk counselling” outside abortion clinics to give women “other options” and “help them through what must be the most difficult time in their life”.
Representatives of the two main abortion providers in Colombia said this put lives at risk. “Women don’t stop seeking abortions,” said the Bogotá clinic director. “Instead, they seek out those services at clinics where there isn’t a heavy presence [of these protesters] … Many of these places aren’t legal and they aren’t safe.”
“If there is one thing we’ve noticed about the way that these anti-rights groups operate it is that they blame women for being women,” she said. “They start to question which life is more important, and the final conclusion they come to is that the lives of women don’t matter,” said Sandra Mazo Cardona, director of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Colombia, a Catholic feminist organisation.
“People have a right to have their beliefs and to work toward a goal that they think is laudable and fair. But it cannot be based on intimidation.”