The lower house of Uruguay’s Congress approved a law on Tuesday that authorizes abortion within 12 weeks of conception. The bill was approved by a narrow margin of 50 to 49 votes after 14 hours of debate.
The law project allows abortions only after a woman has met with a team of at least three professionals—a psychologist, a social worker and a “conscientious objector” (also known as an anti-abortion activist)—who can provide information on the risks, alternatives and adoption programs that are available. Five days after such meeting, if the woman confirms her willingness to end the pregnancy, the physicians arrange the procedure. This approval process does not apply in cases of pregnancy caused by rape or when pregnancy represents a high risk for the woman’s health, in which abortion is unrestricted if it happens within the first 14 weeks after conception.
President José Mujica has said he will approve the law if passed by Congress. This is the third attempt to decriminalize abortion promoted by the Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA) since it assumed power in 2005. In 2008 a law was vetoed by former President Tabaré Vázquez from the FA due to his belief that if abortion is legalized the number of cases will proliferate. Then, in December 2011, the party was only one vote away from passing the bill, but debate was postponed for one more year. According to Iván Posada, a deputy for the Partido Independiente and key advocate of the project, the law “proposes an intermediate solution, the road that is less bad in terms of conflicting values.” It must now be approved by the Senate, where it is expected to pass by the end of the year.
In a region where the majority of people are Catholic, reproductive rights are a highly contested topic in Uruguay, as in the rest of Latin America. Although abortion is legal in several countries—including Cuba, Guayana and Mexico City—this is the first time a South American nation has taken steps toward decriminalizing abortion without restrictions to the reason for this practice. According to Joan Caivano and Jane Marcus-Delgado, 12 percent of all maternal deaths in Latin America are estimated to result from unsafe abortions.
Under Uruguay’s current law, both women who have an abortion and the people who assist them face time in prison, causing more pregnant women to visit clandestine clinics. According to AFP, in 2001 the number of deaths by abortion in Uruguay reached 30 percent of total female deaths in the country.
Recent polls revealed that 52 percent of Uruguayans would vote in favor of legalizing this practice, while 32 percent would vote against it. However, some organizations—even some that favor abortion—oppose the project because it doesn’t contemplate sanctions to health services that fail to comply with the restrictions. As Caivano and Marcus-Delgado point out, the role of domestic actors is crucial to this debate, as they are the ones who have access to the stories that make policy change a priority, and that could pave the way for greater reproductive rights in the region.
Andreina Seijas is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She works with Americas Quarterly and in the policy department at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Her Twitter account is @AndreinaSeijas.