Uruguayan House of Representatives Allows Abortion up to 12 Weeks, but Imposes Other Barriers

Last night, as midnight approached, Uruguay’s House of Representatives voted 50-49 to allow abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy. The bill is expected to be approved by the Senate and signed into law by President José Mujica before the end of the year.

The bill is far from what many Uruguayans had hoped for. For one, it does not take first-trimester abortions out of the criminal code. Instead, it allows a woman to terminate her pregnancy only after she has appeared before an interdisciplinary panel of professionals to outline her reasons for requesting an abortion. The panel is required by law to tell her about alternatives to abortion, such as adoption. Moreover, it must “create an environment of psycho-social support to the woman, to contribute to overcome the factors which may be driving her towards pregnancy termination, and ensure that she has the information to make a decision that is conscious and responsible.”

In addition, the woman must wait five days to “reflect on her decision.” These requirements will most certainly discourage many women, and in particular young and poor women, from accessing safe services for fear of stigma and humiliation. They also mean that a woman who self-induces an abortion, for example with misoprostol, without going through these procedures, would still face penalties.

Finally, the bill contains allows for conscientious objections by individual providers and by hospitals, without spelling out what obligations providers and hospitals have to ensure that these objections do not deny women the safe abortions they would now be entitled to.

The debate in the House was fierce.  For those in favor of making first-term abortion available without restrictions, this bill fell far short of what women need. Álvaro Vega, a member of the majority governmental coalition, the Broad Front, lamented: “Is this an advance?  No, this is not advancing anything.  We should…fully eliminate the articles (of the Criminal Code) that criminalize abortion. Abortions are not going to end in 2012.” It is estimated that in Uruguay every year there are 30,000 abortions, most of them unsafe.

Representatives on both sides of the debate were forced to leave the Chamber so that their alternates could take their places and vote the party line.  A member of the opposition Colorado Party, who vacated his seat so that his alternate could cast a vote against the bill, criticized his party’s position: “This is totally wrong and fails our historic responsibility to allow free conscience.”

Those opposed to decriminalizing abortion were just as passionate.  One Representative left the room in tears, saying that his wife had suffered two miscarriages.  Another swore he would bring this matter to a national referendum. Given that some 60% of the population in Uruguay supports the decriminalization of abortion, such a referendum would face an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, outside Parliament, demonstrators marched. Women, nude and covered in bright body paint, stood and chanted: “They put in their restrictions, but our bodies are on the line.

The text approved by the House is quite different from the version Uruguay’s Senate had passed at the end of 2011. That bill had removed penalties for abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy, without making women jump through any hoops. That was also the case for a bill passed by Congress in 2007, but later vetoed by then President Tabaré Vazquez. A Presidential veto is not expected this time.

Implementation of the new law will need to be closely followed to ensure that safe abortion is in fact accessible. Health regulations spelling out how and where abortion services will be provided are yet to be developed, and health providers will have to be trained to respect women’s decisions and provide them with quality care. Measures will have to be taken to ensure that conscientious objection claims do not prevent women from accessing services altogether, and to address cases where delays push a woman’s pregnancy past 12 weeks.

At this pivotal moment, IWHC stands in solidarity with the feminist activists who have tirelessly advocated for the decriminalization of abortion in Uruguay. For more than 12 years, IWHC has proudly stood by MYSU – Mujer y Salud en Uruguay – a team of committed and effective advocates for women’s rights and health who have been central to recent advances in women’s rights in Uruguay. MYSU has played an instrumental role in educating and mobilizing Uruguayan society, building political will, and influencing political negotiations in the Congress. They did not give up after the 2007 veto and will continue fighting for increased access to safe abortion services. In the words of MYSU’s Director Lilián Abracinskas, “We will continue to fight for women to be respected as citizens who have the right and the autonomy to decide.”

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