Human Rights

Uruguay legalises abortion – or does it?

MAROON: Abortion illegal in all circumstances or permitted only to save a woman’s life. RED:
Abortion legally permitted only to save a woman’s life or protect her physical health. YELLOW: Abortion legally permitted only to protect mental health. BLUE: Abortion legally permitted on socioeconomic grounds. WHITE: Abortion on request

A glance at the map above will tell you that the majority of Latin America is pretty anti-abortion. However, Uruguay recently took a step towards changing this when President José Mujica signed into law a bill that waives criminal penalties for abortion in the first 12 weeks of gestation, with certain procedural requirements, and in the first 14 weeks of gestation in cases of rape. But just how big a step has Uruguay taken, and is it really a victory for womankind and human rights? Or are we counting our eggs before they’ve hatched?

It was most certainly not an easy procedure: Mujica promised to sign the bill back in December of 2011 and it passed by a margin of just one vote. The new law is also not what it appeared to be initially. Abortion remains a crime under the criminal code, but the new bill will allow penalties to be waived. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every 8 minutes a woman in a developing nation dies of complications arising from an unsafe abortion; perhaps a statistic now relegated to Uruguay’s past.

The bill is definitely a positive step towards preventing the life-threatening risks of clandestine abortion. Abortion policies are particularly restrictive in Latin America, an environment which only serves to fuel the number of unsafe abortions that occur every year. The World Health Organization estimated in a report from 2008 that approximately 13 percent of maternal deaths in the region come from unsafe abortion. Another positive impact of Uruguay’s ruling is the potential domino effect it may have on the region. Uruguay’s example may just be the push needed for countries such as Argentina, who are gradually working towards improving the status of human rights, to legalise abortion and reduce restrictions. In 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage. This year, it passed a “dignified death” law to grant more power to the terminally ill and their families and an extensive transgender rights bill similar to Uruguay’s. There’s no reason not to believe that legal abortion could be next on the list.

Nonetheless, the burdensome procedures required to receive an abortion may create more of a barrier to legal abortion than initially anticipated. One such restriction in Uruguay is a five-day reflection period before the woman can reassert her choice to continue with the abortion. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health has found that legal restrictions can make legal abortions impossible. Examples of abortion restrictions that the Rapporteur criticised in a 2011 report include: “requirements of counselling and mandatory waiting periods for women seeking to terminate a pregnancy” and “requirements that abortions be approved by more than one health-care provider.” Both examples are still apparent in Uruguay.

Furthermore, in his letter to the Editor of the New York Times, Alexander Sanger, Chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council, reveals “The new law [in Uruguay], with its requirement that a woman appear before a hospital panel to justify her decision, mimics the practice in effect in New York before 1970.” He further explains how this failed to deter women from seeing unsafe practitioners. What initially seems like a huge leap for human rights begins to seem more like a smoke and mirrors ploy.

That said, Uruguay’s bill has reopened the debate about abortion legislation in Latin America, a bastion of Roman Catholicism and a region where evangelical faiths are growing rapidly. Moreover, the legislation serves as encouragement for conditions allowing all women to exercise their right to a safe abortion. Although not the idealistic victory that women around the world would hope for, and despite misleading interpretations elsewhere, Uruguay’s new abortion laws have caught the attention of the world, perhaps renewing hope of legal abortion in the region and other parts of the world.

As first seen on Protocol Magazine at



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