By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Access to potentially life-saving contraception and abortion can be a lottery for women and girls in Latin America, often depending on their ability to pay or the personal and religious views of a health worker, Amnesty International said on Monday.
In a new report, the rights group looked at sexual and reproductive healthcare in eight countries - El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.
"Tragically, for women across Latin America, receiving life-saving medical treatment depends on the good will of a health professional or the depth of her pockets," Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty, said in a statement.
"This outrageous and utterly illegal lottery-style approach to health care is putting thousands of lives at risk," she said.
Latin America has some of the world's strictest abortion laws, with seven countries imposing total bans on the procedure under any circumstances.
In most countries in the region, abortion is only allowed in cases of rape, incest or if the life of the mother is in danger.
The influential Catholic Church, along with evangelical churches, which say life begins at the moment of conception, are a driving force behind the region's strict abortion laws.
Another reason is the pervasive cultural stereotypes that promote the role of women "first and foremost as mothers," the report said.
It cited the case of a pregnant 10-year-old girl in Paraguay who was denied an abortion in 2015 after she had been allegedly raped by her stepfather.
In the Dominican Republic, 16-year-old Rosaura Hernandez, died of leukemia in 2012 after doctors delayed her treatment because she was pregnant, the report said. Hernandez wanted an abortion, allowing her to undergo cancer treatment, but doctors refused as abortion is banned in the Caribbean nation.
In the few countries where abortion is legal, such as Uruguay, women seeking abortions still face obstacles as health workers use their right to declare themselves as conscientious objectors and refuse to perform the procedure, Amnesty said.
Such attitudes can force women to undergo dangerous backstreet abortions, which were the cause of at least one in 10 maternal deaths in Latin America in 2014, the report said.
Around 760,000 women each year in Latin America are treated in hospital for complications linked to unsafe abortions.
The spread of the Zika virus, linked to birth defects among children in Brazil, has revived the debate about easing abortion laws in Latin America and the need to improve access to contraception, including emergency contraception.
One in three women of reproductive age in Latin America who would like to use contraceptives do not have access to them, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
So far four countries in the region - Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador and Jamaica - have recommended women delay getting pregnant due to the Zika virus.
"This recommendation is not just absurd, it is insulting in a region where more than half of pregnancies are unwanted or unplanned, where there are extremely high rates of sexual violence, where the demand for contraception far outstrips availability," Amnesty's report said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)