Uruguay’s Lower House of parliament was discussing on Tuesday night the legalization of abortion for which the ruling coalition was counting on having the sufficient votes. If finally approved Uruguay would join Cuba, which has made abortions accessible to all women during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Once passed by the Lower House the measure returns to the Senate for approval of changes, and President Jose Mujica has said he will sign it to become law. A previous attempt under the government of ex President Tabare Vazquez (2005/2010) never took off because he warned the ruling coalition he would veto the bill on the grounds that he is a doctor and a Catholic.
The margin for the law was razor-thin on Tuesday as a few members from both the ruling coalition and the opposition stepped down and let their substitutes in. However Ivan Posada from the Independent Party with a minimum representation joining the coalition, the measure appeared headed for passage by a 50-49 vote margin.
As expected compromises made to secure sufficient votes disappointed both sides of the abortion divide which gathered in protest next to the Parliament building and have been involved in intense media and door to door campaigns.
The measure would give women the right to a legal abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and decriminalize later-term abortions when the mother’s life is at risk or when the fetus is so deformed that it wouldn’t survive after birth. In cases of rape, abortions would be legal during the first 14 weeks.
The goal is to reduce the number of illegal abortions in Uruguay, Congressman Posada told his fellow lawmakers during Tuesday’s debate. Posada wrote the measure and is expected to provide a key 50th vote against the opposition of 49 other lawmakers.
“They talk of 30,000 a year, a hypothetical number, but whatever the number is, it’s quite dramatic for a country where 47,000 children are born each year,” Posada explained.
A poll this month showed 52% of Uruguayans would vote to legalize abortion if the question were put to the people, while 34% would vote against it. The survey of 802 people nationwide by a local pollster had a 3.4 percentage point margin of error.
Compromises include requiring women seeking abortions to justify their request before a panel of at least three professionals: a gynecologist, psychologist and social worker, and listen to advice about alternatives including adoption and support services if should she decide to keep the baby. Then, she must wait five more days “to reflect” on the consequences before the procedure.
The review panel should obtain the father’s point of view, but only if the woman agrees. Women under 18 must show parental consent, but they can seek approval from a judge instead if they’re unwilling or unable to involve their parents in the decision.
The measure also allows entire private health care institutions, as well as individual health care providers, to decline to perform abortions.
Such requirements raised objections from Amnesty International and other groups, which say layers of bureaucracy will create barriers and delay abortions until more than 12 weeks have passed, thus forcing women and health care providers into criminal territory.
Also opposed are Uruguay’s Catholic and evangelical institutions, which along with public hospitals provide much of the available health care in Uruguay.
A statement from Uruguay’s Catholic University says it makes no sense to punish a woman for killing a fetus that is 12 weeks and 1 day old, but to decriminalize abortions before then. Conservatives also object to the removal of a proposal to require the father’s consent before any abortion.