On October 22, Uruguay’s President José Mujica signed into law the complete decriminalization of abortion, thus making Uruguay only the second country in the region (after Cuba) that allows for abortion based solely on the woman’s decision to have one. This ruling is a remarkable shift on a continent where laws have remained virtually unchanged with regards to reproductive rights since the beginning of the 20th century, and where the region’s conservative penal codes criminalize women for having an abortion and practitioners for conducting them. Most countries only allow abortions if the life of the mother is at risk and/or when the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. In others, such as El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile, and Brazil, abortions are illegal under any circumstances. El Salvador takes it a step further, stating in the country’s constitution that life begins at conception.
Not even the pink tide that brought to power progressive governments in the early 2000s in many countries in Latin America—including women heads of state in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Chile—could transform the penalizing reproductive laws. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010 as a sign of a progressive gender-rights agenda, but President Fernández de Kirchner has publicly opposed the decriminalization of abortion. President Rousseff of Brazil experienced a dramatic fall in polls when she spoke in favor of decriminalizing abortion, forcing her to promise to leave the abortion laws unchanged in a written statement before the 2010 election to pacify the Partido dos Trabalhadores’ evangelical voters. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet’s government attempted to approve the use of the morning-after pill, since tackling the decriminalization of abortion would have been politically impossible, and was shut down by the Constitutional Court, which declared the decree unconstitutional.
This regional context of strong, progressive women leaders who have failed to promote reproductive rights makes Uruguay’s president, 77-year-old José Mujica, an unlikely candidate to carry forth this agenda. President Mujica, a former Tupamaro guerrilla member who spent seven years in prison during the country’s military dictatorship, became president of Uruguay in 2010. Mujica’s progressive agenda includes a bill currently being discussed in Congress that proposes the legalization and monopoly of the marijuana market by the state. Mujica represents a new face for Latin America’s left; transforming revolutionary ideals into pragmatic policies that have for the past two years slowly transformed Uruguay and helped put the country on the international map.
However groundbreaking, the law dictates that women must have a consultation with a gynecologist, a psychologist, and a social worker, in order for a doctor to perform the abortion. This clause has been criticized by gender-rights advocates who argue that it limits women’s freedom and could present opportunities for these professionals to impose their opinions and try to influence their patient's decision. Religious organizations have also opposed the proposal on moral grounds, and the Catholic Church excommunicated Uruguayan deputies and senators who voted in favor of the bill. The right-leaning Partido Blanco, currently in the opposition, has promised to repeal the law through a referendum, arguing that abortion is an issue that divides the country and should be decided through a popular vote. The law has even seen opposition from within the ruling party, as former president Tabaré Vásquez–a likely candidate for the Frente Amplio in the next presidential election–has openly opposed it, after vetoing a similar bill approved by Congress during his administration.
It remains to be seen whether the law will stand over time and if this is a sign that the view of abortion is changing in the region.
Sabrina Stein is a Program Associate at the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum (CPPF).
Photo Credit: Hacelosvaler.org