By Anne Weis
In October, Uruguay became only the third Latin American nation to legalize abortion in cases other than rape or incest. The law, stating that abortion is legal during the first trimester of pregnancy, was fiercely contested within the nation and only narrowly passed. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who was elected as a left wing liberal, signed the bill into law in late October.
Latin America is one of the most conservative regions in the world when it comes to reproductive rights. Due to the strength and power of the Catholic Church and the size of the Catholic community, most countries in Latin America have absolute bans on abortion, even in the cases of rape, incest, and when the pregnancy puts the mother’s life at risk. However, despite the stringent laws, the World Health Organization reported that Latin America has one of the highest rates of abortions in the world. 32 of every 1,000 women in Latin American countries have had an abortion. Most of these abortions are illegal and performed at great risk to the mother. The WHO reported that in 2008 95% of the 4.4 million abortions that took place in Latin America were clandestine.
The repressive religious culture that surrounds the issue of abortion in Latin America has created some horrific consequences. In Peru, for example, a thirteen-year-old girl who became pregnant as the result of rape jumped off of a building in an attempt to end her life. She lived, but the jump severely injured her spine. Her doctors refused to operate on her for fear of harming her unborn child, and now she is paralyzed. In Bolivia, 400 women die every year from back alley abortions. One woman described her illegal abortion, explaining that the man who performed it (who was not a doctor) ‘“numbed that part of my body and then he did something to make it come out of me right there in the toilet.”’ Hers is not an isolated experience, and her story helps to explain why 12% of all maternal deaths in Latin America arise from complications with illegal abortions.
Many people are hopeful that Uruguay’s recent lift on its abortion ban is a signal that Latin America is moving in a new direction in terms of reproductive rights, one that will allow for its women to be safer and healthier. However, the new law comes with many caveats. For example, any woman who seeks to have a legal abortion in Uruguay must first present her reasons for doing so to a panel made up of a gynecologist, psychologist, and social worker. The panel has the responsibility to seek the opinion of the woman’s father, and her health care provider has the option to refuse to give her an abortion on principle. These additional conditions have led some pro-choice activists in Latin America and the United States to believe that Uruguay isn’t making any progress at all. Still, in a region where only two other nations have legalized abortion in the first trimester, it is fair to say that Uruguay is taking strides to provide safer health care options for women.