A discussion on abortion touches on a person’s moral, religious and cultural beliefs, their freedom of choice as well as the role of the government in a woman’s decisions regarding her own body.
Unsurprisingly, the governments across Latin American, a generally culturally and religiously conservative region, have differing positions regarding the legality of abortion.
We will briefly discuss recent developments by the governments of Uruguay and Bolivia, which have approached abortion from two different perspectives.
Uruguay: Legal for a year
Abortion was approved by the Uruguayan Congress in October 2012, after lengthy debates and close votes. The Senate approved the law with17 votes in favor(the senate has 30 seats plus the country’s vice-president, who also votes). Before going to the Senate, the chamber of deputies approved the bill with a close 50 in favor and 49 against (the chamber has 99 seats).
Uruguay’s abortion law entered into effectin Decemberof 2012. It allows for an abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, though exceptions can be made if the pregnancy is further along.
According to a recent report byAgence France Presse, between December 2012 and November 2013, there were 6,676 legal abortions in Uruguay. That comes up to 556 women carrying out this procedure per month in the tiny South American nation.
The demographics of legal abortion in Uruguay are interesting: According to the Vice Ministry of Public Health, 19 % of women that made this decision in the aforementioned period are younger than 19 years old.
Uruguayan women who undergo an abortion must meet with a team of doctors who will explain the potential risks, alternatives and support programs. The person then has five days to decide whether or not to continue with this procedure, which is free of charge.
According to reports, 60% of Uruguayan women choose this option to protect their jobs or careers, while 30% said it was due to economic reasons and 13% explained that they did not have a partner.
It should be noted that a number of Uruguayan doctors declared themselves against the abortion law, arguing that it goes against their ethical and professional beliefs.
OnJune 2013, anti-abortion groups, including members of the political partyPartido Nacional,organized aconsulta popular(loosely translated as a “popular poll”). If theconsultahad received a backing of 25% of Uruguayan voters (655 thousand people), a referendum could have been called to reconsider the law. Nevertheless, only 8.65% (226 thousand people) voted in favor.
The Uruguayanfeminist NGOMysudeclared that this failed attempt at a referendum “clearly indicates that Uruguayan society is willing to continue going forward.”
Bolivia: The ruling of the constitutional court
In contrast to Uruguay, the judiciary system in Bolivia has taken a more conservative stance. On February 13 and after over two years of debate Bolivia’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion will continue to be illegal in the landlocked Andean country.
A commentary in theSpanish dailyEl Paísexplains the Court’s decision “echoes the principles of indigenous groups” which are incorporated into the country’s 2009 Constitution, which highlight “the close relationship between humans and Mother Earth.”
Bolivia has harsh laws that penalize abortion: up to six years in prison for terminating a human embryo.
Nevertheless, the Bolivian Court also ruled that abortion is permitted in certain scenarios, such as when the pregnancy was due to rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger.
Moreover the Court’s ruling left open the possibility for new legislation on the subject, as it called for the country’s National Assembly to continue working to “protect the Constitutional rights” of Bolivians. (Click herefor how Bolivia’s new Constitution affects Bolivian women).
Whether this means that the Bolivian legislature will revisit the subject in the near future remains to be seen.President Evo Moraleshimself declared that abortion is a crime, and since his political party (MAS) controls the National Assembly, it is unlikely that the government will change these laws anytime soon.
Due to the harsh prison sentences, Bolivian women who are unable to afford transit to a country with legal abortions, are often forced to turn to clandestine abortion operations.
Unsurprisingly, clandestine abortions take place in highly unhygienic conditions with life threatening procedures (visit theWorld Health Organizationfor more info), which can end in the death of the woman receiving the operation.
(It should be noted that organizations likeWomenonWeb.orghave helped some Bolivian women gain access to commonly prescribed abortion pills by mail in order to mitigate deaths due to unsafe abortions).
A September 2013 article in the Bolivian dailyLa Razónexplains that, according to Bolivian NGOs, it is estimated that around80,000 Bolivian womenhave abortions a year. Of those, 480 women die during the procedure. Other organizations argue that clandestine abortion is the third cause for mortality among women in the country.
Nevertheless, because these operations are clandestine, these estimates do vary.
Bolivia and Uruguay demonstrate two different positions taken by Latin American governments on abortion. While the Uruguayan government has taken a progressive stance as abortion has been legal for over a year, the Bolivian judiciary has maintained a conservative stance.
At the very least, it is a positive step that the Bolivian government is openly discussing this sensitive theme.
With that said, it is tragic that many Bolivian women lose their lives resorting to clandestine operations. Meanwhile, the Uruguayan government has reported that so far there have not been any reported deaths of women who have undergone a legal abortion in properly equipped medical centers.