Uruguay Raises the Bar for Latin America

This week, Uruguay took an extremely important step when its President signed into law a bill allowing abortion services during the first trimester of pregnancy, reversing its highly restrictive abortion law. The move is not only a considerable departure from the country's previous law, but also from laws in Latin America—a region known for holding some of the most stringent abortion restrictions in the world. 

Despite global trends toward the liberalization of abortion, with very few exceptions, most countries in Latin America do not explicitly authorize abortion under any circumstance or only permit it in cases in which the woman's life or health is in danger or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. In some countries, women are thrown in prison not only for obtaining abortion services. Doctors deny women critical services for pregnancy complications and frequently violate patient-doctor confidentiality by denouncing women to the authorities.

And despite the harsh laws, the rate of unsafe abortion in Latin America is high, as is often the case in countries where abortion is restricted. Women—desperate to take control of their own health and take care of their families—are forced to resort to clandestine and dangerous methods to end their pregnancies. In the process, many die or suffer debilitating damage to their health.

Time magazine reported on the congressional vote prior to the President signing the bill into law and took a closer look at the context in which it happened:

To better understand the importance of what Uruguay's Congress did this week, consider what Argentina's Supreme Court had to do last week. It ruled that a woman who had been kidnapped, forced to work in a prostitution ring and raped must be permitted to have the abortion she sought. Argentine law allows abortion in cases of rape or when the woman's life is in danger, but a lower-court, anti-abortion judge had insisted—in spite of everything the 32-year-old woman had gone through—that there was no proof of a rape.[1] In fact, the supreme court said that the lower court judge, Miriam Rustan de Estrada, had helped leak the woman's identity and whereabouts to anti-abortion protesters, so they could demonstrate in front of her home shouting, "Murderer!"

What the woman in Argentina had to endure is unfortunately the rule in Latin America. Uruguay, widely considered the commonsense Switzerland of South America these days, has now stepped forward to be the exception. On Wednesday, lawmakers there passed a bill to make their small but thriving nation just the third in Latin America to allow abortion beyond cases of rape, incest or a woman's health. (Only Cuba and Guyana have legalized abortion; it is also legal in Mexico City.) Under the decriminalization measure..., which President José Mujica is expected to sign into law next month, women may now have legal abortions under any circumstances in the first trimester of pregnancy. The reform will likely make waves in Latin America, which has arguably done more than any region in the world, often quite cruelly, to stifle abortion rights.

… The Roman Catholic Church's lingering grip on Latin American politics is the most obvious cause of the draconian controls. That's especially true in Central America, where El Salvador has hundreds of women in prison for having abortions, many serving sentences as long as 30 years. "The way they carry out their laws in El Salvador can be vicious," says Alejandra Cárdenas, Latin America legal adviser for the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York, which this week asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intervene in the case of a mentally ill Salvadoran woman who in August was sentenced to two years in prison for inducing an abortion and then attempted suicide behind bars. Salvadoran lawyers recently won the release of Sonia Tábora, who in 2005 was sentenced to 30 years after she went into premature labor when she was seven months pregnant, lost her baby—and was then falsely accused of inducing an abortion.

Uruguay's new law does include a number of provisions that pose barriers to women's access to legal abortion services (these were tacked on to gain conservative support within the Congress), including a five-day waiting period, the woman seeking an abortion must explain to her gynecologist the circumstances under which she became pregnant, and appear before a panel that will inform her of the law.

Uruguay joins Cuba, Guyana, U.S. territory Puerto Rico, and Mexico City's Federal District in recognizing that allowing women to access abortion services without restriction as to reason is an essential step toward guaranteeing women's fundamental rights and saving the lives of thousands of women every year.   

[1] The Time article erred in stating that abortion is legal in Argentina in cases of rape and when the woman's life is in danger. Abortion is also legal when the pregnancy poses a risk to the woman's health.


Be sure to take a look at the Center's World's Abortion Laws Map to find out legal status of abortion in countries around the world >