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Abortion status

Uruguay in Latin America

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Currently, the only locations in Latin America where abortions have been at least partly decriminalized are Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Mexico City and Puerto Rico (a U.S. Territory). Meanwhile five of the six countries in the world with absolute bans on abortion are in Latin America -- a heavily Roman Catholic area. They are: Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Map of uruguay Uruguay is a small country located between Argentine and Brazil on the Atlantic side of South America. Its main urban area is Montevideo. It has a reputation of being one of the most progressive countries in the region. They were among the first -- or the first -- to:

  • Provide economic protections for the poor,
  • Provide free secular education,
  • Allow divorce,
  • Allow women to vote,
  • Allow gays and lesbians to openly serve in their armed forces,
  • Allow transgendered persons to change their names and gender on official documents,
  • Allow same-sex couples to adopt children,
  • Provide civil unions for same-sex and opposite-sex couples,
  • Ban incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity,
  • Grant access to in-vitro fertilization to lesbians,
  • Recognize same-sex marriages solemnized elsewhere,
  • etc.

Abortions have not been generally available. However, the courts here have allow them in certain difficult, borderline situations. Thousands of women had been going to hospital because of complications arising from illegal abortions until the government made morning-after pills available to women.

According to Guttmacher Institute, there were about 4.2 million unsafe, illegal "back street" abortions in Latin America during 2008. About 1,100 women died as a result of complications from such abortions. Some sources estimate that there are on the order of 30,000 unsafe, illegal abortions a year in Uruguay. However, in 2011-AUG, Leonel Briozzo, Vice Minister of Public Health, said -- presumably for the previous year -- "Today we are proud to affirm that Uruguay is the only Latin America country that didn’t register any maternal deaths from unsafe abortion."

There is considerable public support for abortion access. A recent Cifra poll showed that 52% support and 34% opposition to abortion access.

A Special Commission reviewed the proposed bill before it was voted upon by the House.

The Catholic University of Uruguay published a letter in Spanish condemning the bill. They take the same position as the Roman Catholic Church -- that abortion is a profound evil even to save the life of the woman. They argued that human personhood existed in a developing pre-embryo, embryo and fetus from the time of conception. The following text was translated into English by Google Translate, and edited by ourselves:

"Biology has evolved greatly. Breakthroughs in such areas as in vitro fertilization and the DNA sequencing the human genome, have made it evident that from the moment of conception is there [exists] a new human life, a new being. The unborn -- whether more or less twelve weeks of pregnancy -- is a living being of the human species, with its own individual characteristics, other than those of his mother and father.

No rationale whatsoever can be used to makes a distinction between an embryo with a gestational age less than twelve weeks when compared to twelve weeks and one day. This distinction is therefore arbitrary and unconstitutional, and is contrary to international treaties ratified by the country, and is contrary to the American Convention on Human Rights.

Moreover, abortion is not, nor can be, a medical act because it distorts the principles of Hippocratic medicine, which characterize and exalt the doctor for their actions in favor of life and physical integrity of their peers, as well as being contrary to international declarations on the subject.

We fully agree and support the guidelines of the [Roman Catholic] Episcopal Conference of Uruguay to argue that there are alternatives, specific and feasible, which can be incorporated into an alternative bill, that would respect and protect women, motherhood, family, and life of the unborn, following the constitutional mandate sections 7, 8, 40, 41, 42, 44, 72 and 332, without eliminating the right to life of the unborn."

The vote in the lower chamber was close: 50 in favor and 49 against. Thus, any more liberal law would never have been approved. The Uruguayan Senate approved the bill on OCT-17 by a vote of 17 to 14. President José Mujica has promised to sign it into law when it arrives on his desk.

After the vote in the Senate:

  • Senator Jorge Larranaga of the conservative National Party said:

    "This project is an attack on life and that's why we have voted against it. If we win power in the 2014 elections, we'll seek to overturn it."

  • Legislator María Elena Laurnaga said:

    "We accomplished what was possible. [The legislation generated] the conditions for all women to exercise their right to a safe abortion."

  • Marta Agunin, spokesperson for the group Woman and Health in Montevideo told GlobalPost that the government is:

    "... putting so many obstacles in the way that women may still end up seeking backstreet abortions and we will be back to square one."

  • Senator Luis Gallo from the ruling party said:

    "With this law, we are joining the ranks of developed countries that have largely adopted a stance to liberalize, recognizing the failure of criminal laws to avoid abortions."

  • Senator Alfredo Solari from the opposition  party said:

    "Abortion is not a medical act. It does not seek to protect and preserve a patient's health. It causes irreparable harm to the embryo or fetus and hurts the pregnant woman, too."

  • Senator Jose Amorin from the opposition party said that opponents will begin collecting signatures in to force a referendum in which the public could repeal the measure.

  • Maria Jose Del Campo, who is part of an pro-life group, referred to stalled government bills that would provide more flexible workplace rules for pregnant women, job sharing, and government-paid maternity leave. She said:

    "The real problem is to provide support and alternatives to this woman who ended up pregnant."

The proposed law makes the woman jump through hoops to obtain an abortion. She must get a referral from her physician to a team of professionals consisting of a gynecologist, psychologist and social worker who may authorize the abortion. She must tell the team how the pregnancy happened, and reveal "... any difficulties she faces in terms of finances, social and family situations, age or other issues that prevent her from wanting to continue the pregnancy."

The bill states that:

"The interdisciplinary panel must create an atmosphere of psychological and social support for the woman to enable her to overcome the causes that led her to want to abort the pregnancy and guarantee that she makes a conscious and responsible decision."

However, where such panels were required in other political jurisdictions, they were generally regarded by pregnant women as simply another hurdle to overcome.

The team must promote alternatives to the woman, including adoption and parental support services. They must explain all of the potential health risks associated with abortion, but they do not seem to be required to discuss health risks associated with childbirth, even though the latter is much greater. The panel must also seek the father's opinion, if the woman consents. She must wait five days after approval before she can terminate the pregnancy. The bill includes an opt-out clause that permits individual health care providers to refuse to perform abortions. Women under 18 years-of-age need either parental consent or permission from a court. Abortions are allowed up to 12 weeks gestation, or later if a woman is facing health risks. The law is expected to significantly reduce the approximately 33,000 illegal and unsafe abortions performed yearly.

Women who violate the law would not be sent to jail. However, anyone who helps a woman obtain an illegal abortion would face up to two years in prison.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Katey Zeh, "Why Uruguay’s Move to Legalize Abortion is Not a True Victory," Religion Dispatches, 2012-OCT-10, at: http://www.religiondispatches.org/
  2. "About the abortion bill: Open letter from the Catholic University of Uruguay, 2012-SEP, at: http://www.ucu.edu.uy/  This is a PDF file, in Spanish.
  3. "Uruguay approves abortion law," Global Post, 2012-OCT-18, at: http://www.globalpost.com/
  4. "Abortion in Uruguay: still leading the way," The Economist, 2012-OCT-19, at: http://www.economist.com/
  5. "Uruguay legalizes first trimester abortion," Catholic Online, 2012-OCT-18, at: http://www.catholic.org/
  6. Simon Romero, "Uruguay Senate Approves First-Trimester Abortions," The New York Times, 2012-OCT-17, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
  7. "Eliminating Maternal Deaths from Unsafe Abortion in Uruguay" UNFPA, 2011-AUG-18, at: http://www.unfpa.org/

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Home page > Hot topics > Abortion > Abortion laws worldwide > here

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Copyright © 2012 by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Created: 2012-OCT-19
Latest update: 2012-OCT-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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