A Move to Roll Back Reproductive Rights in Uruguay

Only a few months after Uruguayan President José Mujica signed into law legislation that will save women’s lives by allowing some abortions in the first trimester, foes of the new law have taken the first steps to repeal it. On Friday, April 26, 2013, the Electoral Court validated 52,343 signatures submitted by the National Commission for the Repeal of Abortion Decriminalization. The signatures will require a vote on a referendum to repeal the law.

Law 18.987, commonly known as “la ley de la interrupción voluntaria del embarazo” (“Law of Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy”), permits abortion on any ground in the first trimester (albeit with certain bureaucratic hurdles), and during the first 14 weeks in the case of rape and with no restrictions when a woman’s life is at risk or there are severe fetal anomalies. With the passage of this law, Uruguay became one of the few places in the region, along with Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guyana and Mexico City, permitting abortion without restriction in the first trimester.

It was not long, however, until anti-choice groups began to mobilize. Now that the required number of signatures has been submitted, the Electoral Court has a deadline of 45 days in which to call a vote, likely to take place on June 23. This vote, which is non-obligatory, asks the electorate if they are in favor of holding a referendum to repeal the law. If 25 percent of the ballots (roughly 640,000 votes) are cast in favor of the referendum, the referendum will be held in October.

Uruguay is often described as a progressive country. Marriage equality legislation passed in April, and public opinion polls reveal a majority of Uruguayans support fewer restrictions on abortion. These factors should contribute to an environment with greater reproductive rights, yet it has still been difficult for advocates of safe, legal abortion, such as IWHC’s partner organization, MYSU (Mujer y Salud en Uruguay, or “Women and Health in Uruguay”), to overcome political, cultural and religious opposition to attain safe, legal abortion for women. The passage of this law, the culmination of a 12-year struggle, reflects this.

IWHC will continue to stand by MYSU and other advocates of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Latin America. Despite this repeal movement, the past year’s events in Uruguay demonstrate evolving public opinion and the emerging realization that reproductive rights are fundamental human rights.

Such shifts in opinion have already produced positive developments in the region. In Argentina last September, government officials in Buenos Aires passed a law that removed restrictions on abortion in the case of rape or when a woman’s life is endangered (unfortunately, the mayor vetoed the legislation). And in Brazil, the Federal Council on Medicine called for the legalization of abortion in the first 12 weeks.

But we have also seen how these accomplishments have been threatened. Central American countries (namely Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala) are further restricting already rigid anti-choice legislation and, in some cases, restricting the availability of contraceptives.

So while recent events have been encouraging, the process to achieve greater sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America remains fragile, vulnerable to underlying conservative tendencies. Yet in a region where unsafe, clandestine abortions account for 12 percent of maternal deaths and nearly one million hospitalizations due to complications, it is becoming evident that women in Latin America deserve safer options to address their reproductive needs and are increasingly mobilizing to fight for them.

Updated 5/20/2013

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