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Uruguay congress votes to legalise abortion

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Uruguay could become only the second Latin American country to legalise abortion.

This week the Uruguay’s lower house voted 50 to 49 for a bill that would legalise abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The bill must now be approved by the Senate, after which President Jose Mujica will have the final veto. Mujica has already gone on record saying that if the Senate approves the bill he will also sanction it.

The new law will mean that Uruguay will join Cuba in being the only other country which allows abortion in Latin America. Cuba currently allows abortion at the woman’s request up to 10 weeks. The Urguguan bill, if passed, will allow women access to safe abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnany, with the condition that she is interviewed by a gynocologist, a phychiatrist and a social worker. In addition the law permits abortion in the case of rape up to 14 weeks, and for later term abortions where the mother’s life is at risk.

Currently the punishment for abortion in Uruguay is between 3 and 12 months for receiving an abortion, and between 6 to 24 months for those performing an abortion. However, as with countries the world over, the criminalisation of abortion does little to lower the actual rate of abortion; in 2008 the abortion rate in Latin America was 32 per 1000 women, higher than the global average. Rather, in countries where abortion is illegal, women seeking abortions are forced into having unsafe procedures. The World Health Organisation qualifies an unsafe abortion as one where the procedure is carried out by someone without the neccesary skills, or in an environment that does not meet minimal medical requirements, or both. In Latin America it is estimated that 95% of all abortions are unsafe. An estimated 67,000 women die annually as a result of unsafe abortions.

While pro-life groups in Uruguay have opposed the bill, supporters have criticised it for not going far enough.

“This is not the law for which we fought for more than 25 years,” said Marta Agunin, who directs Women and Health, a non-governmental organisation in Uruguay.

Groups, including Amnesty International, have said that the bureaucracy involved, which includes interviews with the panel of three professionals and a 5 day ‘waiting’ period for women who seek an abortion, will create barriers to women accessing a safe and legal abortion within the given 12 week timespan. Women are required to meet with a social worker before any termination is allowed who will be required to advise the woman about alternatives to ending the pregnancy, including adoption and social welfare programs that could help her to care for a newborn infant.

Amnesty International Uruguay director Mariana Labastie said that the legislation “treats [women] as if they weren’t capable of responsible decisions about their lives and their health;  this isn’t just a lack of respect, it’s discriminatory.”

While Uruguan women will still face these challenges to accessing safe abortions, it is at least a positive step in the right direction towards safe and legal access to reproductive healthcare for all.

 

 

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