Uruguay Diverges from a Continent Where Abortion Is Worse than Rape

Abortion is illegal in most of Latin America--but it still has one of the world's highest abortion rates, most of it unsafe. Uruguay is now one of the few exceptions to that rule.

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Andres Stapff / Reuters

Uruguayan senators raise their hands to vote 17 to 14 in favor of a bill to legalize abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in Montevideo, Oct. 17, 2012.

To better understand the importance of what Uruguay’s Congress did this week, consider what Argentina’s Supreme Court had to do last week. It ruled that a woman who had been kidnapped, forced to work in a prostitution ring and raped must be permitted to have the abortion she sought. Argentine law allows abortion in cases of rape or when the woman’s life is in danger, but a lower-court, anti-abortion judge had insisted—in spite of everything the 32-year-old woman had gone through—that there was no proof of a rape. In fact, the supreme court said that the lower court judge, Miriam Rustan de Estrada, had helped leak the woman’s identity and whereabouts to anti-abortion protesters, so they could demonstrate in front of her home shouting, “Murderer!”

What the woman in Argentina had to endure is unfortunately the rule in Latin America. Uruguay, widely considered the commonsense Switzerland of South America these days, has now stepped forward to be the exception. On Wednesday, lawmakers there passed a bill to make their small but thriving nation just the third in Latin America to allow abortion beyond cases of rape, incest or a woman’s health. (Only Cuba and Guyana have legalized abortion; it is also legal in Mexico City.) Under the decriminalization measure, which President José Mujica is expected to sign into law next month, women may now have legal abortions under any circumstances in the first trimester of pregnancy. The reform will likely make waves in Latin America, which has arguably done more than any region in the world, often quite cruelly, to stifle abortion rights.

In fact, Uruguay’s move highlights just how restrictive Latin American abortion laws and attitudes still are. No other region has as many countries—El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Chile—that ban abortion entirely, even in cases of rape, or sees as many instances where judges and other government officials simply block even legal abortions. Little wonder, according to the World Health Organization, that more than 4 million women in Latin America have unsafe clandestine abortions each year, and that a quarter of them end up hospitalized or worse from complications.

The Roman Catholic Church’s lingering grip on Latin American politics is the most obvious cause of the draconian controls. That’s especially true in Central America, where El Salvador has hundreds of women in prison for having abortions, many serving sentences as long as 30 years. “The way they carry out their laws in El Salvador can be vicious,” says Alejandra Cárdenas, Latin America legal adviser for the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York, which this week asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intervene in the case of a mentally ill Salvadoran woman who in August was sentenced to two years in prison for inducing an abortion and then attempted suicide behind bars. Salvadoran lawyers recently won the release of Sonia Tábora, who in 2005 was sentenced to 30 years after she went into premature labor when she was seven months pregnant, lost her baby—and was then falsely accused of inducing an abortion.

None of this, however, has had any deterrent effect. In fact, Latin America has one of the world’s highest abortion rates, more than 30 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, compared to fewer than 20 in the U.S. and 12 in Western Europe. A big reason: much of Latin America also subscribes to the Catholic Church’s insistence on restricting birth control. Among the results, teen-aged girls account for 45% of all pregnancies in Nicaragua, where the Church is quasi-omnipotent regarding reproductive policies, and where the maternal mortality rate is some 20 times higher than Western Europe’s.

Meanwhile, the tragedies mount. In 2006, a 13-year-old Peruvian girl known as “L.C.” found out she was pregnant after being raped repeatedly by a man in her poor neighborhood outside Lima. But while Peru permits abortions in cases when a pregnant woman’s health is at grave risk, it does not allow them in cases of rape. Distraught, L.C. tried to kill herself by jumping off a roof, but seriously injured her spine instead. Even so, doctors, cowed by Peru’s harsh laws, refused to perform the necessary surgery to repair the damage because it might have terminated the girl’s pregnancy. L.C. miscarried anyway—and today is a quadriplegic. Last fall, the U.N. condemned Peru—the first time it has designated the denial of a legal abortion as a human rights violation—and ordered the government to compensate L.C. So far Peru has not complied.

Even in Uruguay, lawmakers had to water down their abortion liberalization bill by requiring women seeking abortions to first meet with a panel of healthcare and social work professionals and then wait five days before undergoing the procedure. But at least both sides in Uruguayan society demonstrated a willingness to craft a more sensible compromise that protects not only women’s reproductive rights but their lives.

It stood in stark contrast, for example, to the statement issued last week by the influential Catholic Attorney Corps in Argentina, which assailed the Supreme Court ruling: “In the case of a rape, which does not justify an abortion, one wrong is not corrected by another bigger one.” On a continent where abortion after a rape is still widely considered a “bigger” crime than the rape itself, Uruguay this week became a much bigger country than it appears on the map.