Uruguay Takes a Step Toward Safe Abortion

Mandy Van Deven, Online Administrator

An historic ruling was decided on Wednesday that makes Uruguay the second country in Latin America to allow unrestricted first-trimester abortion. Last month, Uruguay’s Chamber of Deputies just barely passed a bill permitting abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy with 50 to 49 votes, and this week the 31-member Senate approved the bill as well with a vote of 17-to-14. The decision comes after more than a decade of sustained advocacy by feminists, obstetricians, and sexual and reproductive rights groups.

Although the decriminalization of abortion in Uruguay is certainly a victory within the country and throughout the region, the reaction among the disparate groups of advocates has been mixed.

“We see this law as minimal. It is not what we were hoping for,” Martha Aguñín, a spokeswoman for Mujer y Salud en Uruguay (Women and Health in Uruguay), told IPS.

The group is concerned about the obstructions that may be enacted and the potential inadequacies of the Uruguayan health system. Others are concerned that the law doesn't actually decriminalize abortion; it simply allows abortion under specific conditions.

Ana Labandera, the president of Iniciativas Sanitarias (Health Initiatives), holds a more optimistic view. “[The law] has a few problems, but it is still a big step towards guaranteeing the rights of women, and allowing them to make their own decision about having an abortion within the integrated national health system. The infrastructure has already been put in place so that this law can be a complementary part of the services that are already provided.”

Much is unknown about how the law will be implemented or how it will play out in everyday health care settings. For this reason, advocates must remain hard at work pushing for a strong implementation plan and the development of clear and progressive service delivery guidelines for health care providers and institutions.

Providers must have clarity on what is expected of them with regard to this ruling and training on best practices in service provision. Outreach and educational campaigns must be carried out to make women aware of their rights and how to access services. Also, steps must be taken to avoid the application of any unnecessary barriers to women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services. The Ministry of Health, along with civil society partners, is already working to address many of these issues, including the development of regulations and guidelines for service providers and effective strategies for ensuring the availability of affordable and accessible services.

This new law has major implications for the health and well-being of women and families in Latin America, a region with some of the most restrictive laws against abortion in the world. According to the World Health Organization, 95% of abortions in Latin America are unsafe, and one in eight maternal deaths in the region result from unsafe abortion.

Additional advocacy throughout the region remains critical to reducing women’s need to resort to clandestine procedures and reduce the high rates of maternal mortality due to unsafe abortions. Women who have unsafe abortions need quality post-abortion care, and all people need access to comprehensive sexuality education and contraceptives to prevent unintended pregnancy. It is also crucial to continue educational work and advocacy to eliminate the stigma against women who have an abortion.

Empowering individuals and families with the information and services they need to make informed and autonomous decisions about their sexual and reproductive health creates more sustainable and just communities. Uruguay is now a visible leader in advocating for women's bodily autonomy.

Photo credit: Matilde Campodonico/Associated Press


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