Sexuality Policy Watch

Uruguay: Perspectives on the abortion front

Alejandra López Gómez*

The Reproductive Health Policy Law (Law 18.426), finally promulgated by the Executive in Uruguay on November 20th, 2008, was substantially different in scope, content and purpose than the original version of the provision, as it does include the decriminalization of abortion, which, in fact, was the initial objective of the law approved in September by the lower chamber. In October President Tabaré Vasquez vetoed the clause decriminalizing abortion and, in November, though in the Parliament General Assembly, which debated the revised text, there was a majority in favor of the original provision, the veto could not be overturned because this would have required 3/5 of the votes.

The law as it has been approved includes a series of policy, programmatic and clinical guidelines that have, by and large, already been implemented in Uruguay since 1996. The adoption of a legal framework to ground the continuity of these policies and services ensures that they will not be easily changed, even if a major political shift occurs; this is not a minor achievement. However, the new law has several pitfalls: it does not represent any major advancement in terms of improving sexual and reproductive health outreach, overcome limitations of existing policies, or clarify the roles and obligations of institutions responsible for the regulation and implementation of existing programs. More importantly, under the law, abortion is still considered a crime, no matter what the circumstances, as was established in 1938. No concrete state response is offered to women who undergo clandestine abortion. And it must be recalled that the systematic call for a state response has been the main motivation of those how have, over the years, promoted the debate about abortion at societal and legislative levels. To summarize, the law does not bring about abortion decriminalization and as such does not meet the objectives, scope and commitments for which it was originally created.

On the other hand it is also important to recognize that public debate on abortion has achieved a quality and richness never seen before in Uruguay. The expansion of public support for the decriminalization agenda means a deep transformation of the social consensus, which will necessarily impact upon legal and policy change in the short or medium term. Uruguayan society has finally been able to speak freely about abortion and related issues, which, until now, had been silenced or confined to gossip. This cultural change resulted from the sustained work on the part of social actors who have fought gender based discrimination and garnered public support for the right to choose about sexual and reproductive matters.

Equal opportunity is a core component of the human rights agenda to which the Uruguayan state constantly declares its commitments. The challenge, therefore, is for governments to play their part in promoting, respecting and guaranteeing the right of every person to freely decide about his/her own destiny. Governments must also fully participate in the transformation of society so as to make it more inclusive and democratic.

In October-November of 2009, Uruguay will have a new round of national elections for president and members of the parliament. The need to expand further the sexual and reproductive health framework has already been incorporated into public speeches by representatives of diverse political parties. Also the General Congress of the “Frente Amplio” (held December 20th-21st, 2008) has stated, as a formal position, that the Frente legislators must take the necessary measures to promote advancements in reproductive health policy as well as to present, in the next legislative period, a specific provision to decriminalize abortion. In contrast, other sectors, in particular the Partido Nacional, have made public their position against decriminalization. Though the electoral process has barely begun, it is quite evident that strong positions with regard to abortion are already taking shape. It will be crucial to watch carefully and critically how this debate unfolds.

* Alejandra López Gómez is Executive Director to MYSU – Mujer y Salud en Uruguay. Salto 1267 CP 11200, Montevideo. Tel.: +598 2 410-3981 / 410-4619.

:: Posted in 01/26/2009::

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