Since moving to Uruguay from my home country, Brazil, five years ago, I have continued to be impressed with this nation’s progressive laws. While most Latin American countries are very conservative, Uruguay has passed laws legalizing marijuana consumption, protecting transgender rights, and, perhaps most impressive to me, legalizing abortion. In fact, Uruguay is one of only four Latin American countries in which abortion on request is legal.
There are a few reasons abortion was successfully legalized in Uruguay. There is no official religion in the nation; it is relatively secular and upholds a separation between church and state. Religious institutions have less political influence in Uruguay than they do in other Latin countries. Uruguay’s population is also well-educated: The illiteracy rate across the country is almost 0 percent, which tends to allow for more public debate about progressive issues.
Even so, it still took almost 30 years of legislative debate to legalize abortion. Four abortion laws were proposed to the Uruguayan Congress in 1985, 1993, 2002, and 2004, but all were unsuccessful. Lilián Abracinskas, director of the feminist organization Mujer y Salud en Uruguay (MYSU) and a long-time abortion rights activist in Uruguay, told the FBomb she believes the 2004 proposal, which was called the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Defense Law, was the strongest. Even though the Senate and Chamber of Deputies both passed this legislation — which established health care rights beyond abortion, like those related to contraception and domestic violence — the president vetoed the abortion references in the text.
While Uruguayans waited for this legalization, a number of feminist organizations stepped in to help women in their daily lives. For example, in 2004 the advocacy organization Iniciativas Sanitarias partnered with hospitals in the city of Montevideo and developed a project to help women reduce the risks and harms often caused by undergoing unsafe and clandestine abortion practices by providing a series of steps that doctors should follow to help patients who have decided to have an abortion as well as how to help patients who had already had one.
In 2008, the feminist collective Mujeres en el Horno, which started as an informal group of women who helped their friends get accurate information about abortion, officially formed as a network of women willing to accompany other women to their abortions. When the collective started, women claimed that they were «en el horno” when expressing that they had an unwanted pregnancy, which is where the name of the organization comes from. Mujeres en el Horno still operates a telephone line and responds via email and social media to help women today.
In October 2012, under the term of a different president, the Uruguayan Congress finally approved the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy Law, which legalized abortion in the country. Thanks to alliances formed with conservative politicians to get the number of votes needed to pass the legislation, concessions were made: The procedure must be done within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy (although in cases of rape this is extended to 14 weeks). There is no cut-off only if the pregnancy presents a serious risk for the woman’s life or if the fetus has a malformation that is incompatible with life. In addition, women who request abortions are required to have a series of consultations with a gynecologist, social worker, and psychologist to discuss the procedure. Then the woman has to reflect on her decision for five days before being able to meet with the gynecologist again to receive treatment. Additional restrictions include the fact that foreign women can get an abortion only after living in the country for a year and the legal right for doctors to refuse to perform an abortion if it’s against their beliefs.
The legislation has still had beneficial effects. Between 2013 and 2017 more than 40,000 safe abortions were performed, according to the Ministry of Health, and Uruguay’s rate of maternal mortality has shrunk in recent years. According to a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, abortion in Uruguay led to 37 percent of maternal deaths between 2001 and 2005, but this number fell to 8 percent between 2011 and 2015.
Organizations like MYSU, Iniciativas Sanitarias, and Mujeres en el Horno are still vigilant about how accessible abortion really is despite it being legal. MYSU tracks how many gynecologists refuse to perform abortions and has found that in some areas of Uruguay, 100 percent of doctors claim conscientious objection to performing abortion, which renders abortion in these places effectively inaccessible. These organizations also do what they can to help those in the region who still lack access to abortion. These three organizations, for instance, are part of regional networks that track public policies, advocate for human rights, conduct research, and provide guidance for social changes. “Uruguay cannot export the law text, but what we can do is to export our citizen process of building an agenda for new, liberal rights and how to resist,” Abracinskas told the FBomb.
One of these strategies is “Mira que te miro,” an online platform that reaches 18 countries in the region and measures if and how those nations are fulfilling the regional agreement known as the Montevideo Consensus, an accord for the promotion of human rights that was signed by several Latin American countries in 2013. “The Montevideo Consensus has an important influence on sexual and reproductive rights,” Cecilia Stapff, leader of the Advocacy Area in Iniciativas Sanitarias, told the FBomb. “It urges nations to change their laws and, more specifically, to review their legislation on abortion. From Uruguay we’re boosting it, promoting the steps to follow.”
These organizations also remain vigilant about protecting their rights, as Latin America is experiencing a resurgence of conservativism. In 2019, Uruguay will have presidential elections, and it’s more important than ever that organizations advocating for reproductive rights stick together and continue to keep fighting to educate their society and advocate for a continued cultural shift toward acceptance of women’s reproductive rights.
Fuente: Women’s Media Center.