pro-choice demonstrators bare all, Sept. 25 in Montevideo, Uruguay
Pro-choice demonstrators bare all, Sept. 25 in Montevideo, Uruguay

Credit: Mujer y Salud en Uruguay, courtesy of

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (WOMENSENEWS)–As Argentines watch early abortions head toward legalization next month in neighboring Uruguay, a leading pro-choice activist here says federal support is the only thing standing in the way in this country.

"We’ve fought for human rights and we’ve had many victories in this country," says Julia Martino, a coordinator of Argentina’s National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion and a member of the National Socialist Party. "What’s lacking in Argentina is just political will."

But she adds that, "We are very active right now and recent events are strengthening the campaign," referring to a Supreme Court decision three weeks ago allowing a trafficked woman to obtain an abortion. "But when neither the president nor the Minister of Health react to such a court decision, it’s clear there is a serious lack of courage in this country."

In 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage. This year, it passed a "dignified death" law to grant more power to the terminally ill and their families and an extensive transgender rights bill similar to Uruguay’s.

But while Argentina has become a frontrunner on such issues, abortion is widely seen as far thornier.

The most recently proposed national law to loosen abortion restrictions has been stuck in committee for three years.

In March, the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion in all cases of rape and when there’s a threat to a woman’s health. But without a national law, each province is left to enforce the ruling and legal abortions continue to be blocked by politicians, doctors and judges.

Judges Forced to Intervene

The Supreme Court was forced to intervene in a recent sex-trafficking case when the woman’s abortion in Buenos Aires was prevented by a last-minute injunction. The 32-year-old had been kidnapped, trafficked and raped, but a lower-court, anti-abortion judge insisted that there was no proof of rape.

In approving abortion in this case the Supreme Court also blamed Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri and the judge who intervened for leaking details that enabled anti-abortion protesters to demonstrate at the hospital where the woman was set to get the procedure and in front of her home.

"They shouted that she’s a murderer and threatened her that if she continues, that something really bad would happen to her," her lawyer, Pablo Vicente, told The Associated Press.

After the Supreme Court released its ruling, the Catholic Attorney Corps in Argentina put out a statement: "In the case of a rape, which does not justify an abortion, one wrong is not corrected by another bigger one."

When Uruguay’s senators approved a bill two weeks ago that legalizes abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, the small South American nation became the third country in Latin America to provide legal abortions, after Guyana and Cuba. Abortion is also legal in Mexico City.

On Sept. 25, a large group of naked women arrayed themselves on the lawn of Uruguay’s Parliament to protest what they referred to as shortcomings of the final abortion bill, which is likely to become law by next month. The protest was organized by the country’s main pro-choice advocacy group to provide attention-getting public spectacle.

The new law legalizes abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy for any reason. In cases of rape, abortion may be performed during the first 14 weeks. Later-term abortions will be permitted if the health of the mother is in danger.

The bill, which passed by a 17-to-14 vote, comes after years of debate in Uruguay. It was narrowly approved in September by the country’s lower house, in a 50-49 vote. Uruguay’s president, leftist former guerilla José Mujica, has outwardly supported the measure and earned the support of human-rights campaigners.

"The overwhelming support of the president of Uruguay, who promised this in his election campaign, speaks of a person with strong convictions," says Mariela Belski, executive director of Amnesty International in Argentina.

A Regional Anomaly

Uruguay, with a population of just under 3.5 million, is a champion of progressive legislation in the region and is a secular anomaly in the predominantly Roman Catholic region.

It has long been described as South America’s "first welfare state," due to pioneering efforts in the fields of public education, health care and social security. In 2009, Uruguay became the first Latin American country to allow same-sex couples to adopt children. It also passed legislation to allow gays to serve in the military and for transgendered citizens to change their gender on official documents. Mujica is now pushing to legalize marijuana.

The country’s conservatives work to stem the progressive tide and in this case managed to win many concessions.

Any woman seeking an abortion will be required to consult with three health care professionals, including a gynecologist, social worker and mental health professional, and take five days to reflect and weigh options. Catholic health care facilities will not be required to perform the procedure.

"For those of us who advocate for the legalization of abortion for any woman who wants it, Uruguay’s ruling is important and valuable," Belski says, "but it is not reflective of the demand in countries in the region. It’s an advance but not more than that."

Official data maintain that about 30,000 women had abortions illegally in Uruguay last year. In neighboring Argentina, data indicate 80,000 women are hospitalized with complications from illegal abortions each year, suggesting that as many as 500,000 are undergoing the procedure. Many proponents of legal abortion make the case that legalization will help regulate a practice that is already widespread, ultimately saving lives.

More than 4 million women in Latin America have clandestine abortions each year, according to the World Health Organization, and a quarter of them end up hospitalized or worse. Five of the six countries in the world with absolute bans on abortion are in Latin America: Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, reports the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

Jessica Weiss is a freelance writer in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Follow her on twitter @jessweiss1.

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