Uruguay's Senate approves abortion bill: Will there be a ripple effect?
Uruguay's Senate approved a bill legalizing first-trimester abortions, and the president says he will sign it. Abortion is still a political hot potato in Latin America, but some say such legislation could spread.
Uruguay paved the way for one of the most far-reaching abortion rights laws in Latin America this week when its Senate voted to legalize the procedure during the first trimester of pregnancy. The controversial decision has sparked speculation as to whether regional neighbors â from liberal Argentina to conservative Chile â could follow suit.
Uruguayâs Senate vote on Wednesday put the southern cone nation âat the forefront of countries that have established [these] rights,â says VĂ©ronica PĂ©rez, a political scientist at Montevideoâs University of the Republic. President Jose Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla, is expected to sign the bill into law.
Though Uruguay is already considered one of the most liberal countries in the region â it was one of the first Latin American nations to officially separate the state from the Catholic church in the early 1900s, and it recently floated the idea of legalizing marijuana â the abortion debate has been met with considerable opposition.
This weekâs vote was the third time the bill has been introduced in the Uruguayan Parliament and the Senateâs final vote tally of 17 in favor and 14 against shows how divisive the issue remains. A previous bill was approved in 2008, but then-President TabarĂ© VĂĄzquez vetoed it.
âLegislation is a long, long process in a region where very few countries have decriminalized abortion,â says Marta Alanis, a member of Argentinaâs National Campaign for the Right to Abortion, based in CĂłrdoba.
The regional climate
In Latin America, abortion is permitted only in Mexico City and Cuba. Uruguayâs larger neighbors, Brazil and Argentina, continue to ban the procedure unless the pregnancy is the result of a rape or the womanâs life is in danger. In Chile, abortion is illegal under all circumstances.
The Catholic church and the powerful pro-life lobby continue to be the major obstacles to change in legislated reproductive rights in Latin America. But politicians, too, are reluctant to tackle such a polemical hot potato.
âAbortion isnât an issue that political parties use to differentiate themselves inÂ Latin America,â says Ms. PĂ©rez, the political scientist. âThis isnât an issue that forms part of their campaigns. In reality, these are ideas that tend to divide the electorate and different social groups. There isnât a consensus.â
In contrast to divisions among politicians, however, a September survey by the polling firm CIFRA found that 52 percent of Uruguayans would vote in favor of the law if they could. Some 34 percent said they would vote against it. And the legalization movement is gathering strength in neighboring countries, including Argentina, where a parliamentary debate is likely to take place next year.
The topic has dominated Argentine media since March, when the Supreme Court declared that non-punishable abortions did not need to be approved by a judge. But problems remain and earlier this month a judge stepped in to stop a victim of sexual abuse from having an abortion in a Buenos Aires hospital.
But Uruguayâs new law has been criticized by some pro-choice groups for not going far enough: The law stipulates that women have to meet with a board of medical experts and explain the âeconomic, social, family, or age difficulties that in her view stand in the way of continuing the pregnancy,â according to the bill. The board will explain the alternatives and the woman will then have five days to reflect on her decision. The billâs conditions, some argue, donât allow a woman to make her own free decision.
Despite its drawbacks, the law remains a landmark decision in Latin America, and is something pro-choice campaigners hope will have regional ripple effects.
But the road ahead may be long: Although there have been many advances in terms of sexual rights in Latin America â most notably with Brazil and Argentina legalizing same-sex unions in 2004 and 2010, respectively â abortion is extremely divisive.
âIn terms of the reactions and conflicts [abortion and same-sex marriage] provoke in society,â pushing same-sex unions isnât the same as advocating the legalization of abortion, says PĂ©rez. âFor same-sex marriage or gay adoption, for some men itâs like âthatâs OK, I donât like it much but it doesnât affect my rights,ââ she says. âOn the other hand, a womanâs decision to interrupt her pregnancy strikes at the core of masculine decision-influencing power.â
For Ms. Alanis, the abortion rights campaigner, the cultural and historical similarities between Argentina and Uruguay mean that abortion legalization in Uruguay is bound to influence her country.
âI think weâll see a decriminalization of abortion before President Cristina FernĂĄndez de Kirchner finishes her mandate [in 2015],â Alanis says.
But, if the abortion agenda is progressing in Argentina and Brazil, then Chile remains the exception, widely held to be the most conservative country in the region, where divorce was only legalized in 2004.
âUruguay legalizing abortion or Argentina granting same-sex marriages are solid international examples that show that in Chile weâre not mad if we want to approve divorce, gay marriage, or abortion,â says CristĂłbal Bellolio, an academic at Santiagoâs Adolfo IbĂĄĂ±ez University.
The Uruguay ruling helps, Mr. Bellolio says. âWhat weâre doing is basically following a universal tendency [in legalizing liberal policies] that, far from destroying society, does exactly the opposite."Â
PĂ©rez says regional change is on the horizon. âExperience has shown us that legislation tends to happen with one country following another,â she explains. âIf you look at sexual equality laws in Latin America, theyâve tended to advance in waves, too, with countries copying each other.â