Maternal Health Sidelined in Uruguay

Almost 800,000 Latin American women die each year from medical hazards associated with abortion, and fatalities resulting from the procedure make up 17 percent of all maternal deaths in the region
Sara Mojtehedzadeh
29 November 2008

Almost 800,000 Latin American women die each year from medical hazards associated with abortion, and fatalities resulting from the procedure make up 17 percent of all maternal deaths in the region.

To the disappointment of many women's rights activists, President Tabaré Vasquez of Uruguay vetoed a bill to legalize abortion last week. The bill, part of a larger document on sexual health and reproductive rights, would have decriminalized abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. The bill was approved by the parliament and senate, and recent polls indicate that 63 percent of the population in Uruguay supported the proposed legislation.

President Vasquez, leader of the left wing coalition Frente Amplio and a former oncologist, said that he disagreed with the bill on both "philosophical and biological" grounds.

Currently, Uruguayan women can only legally obtain abortions if they have been raped or if the pregnancy endangers their lives. According to a 1938 law, women who have abortions under any other circumstances are liable to serve up to nine months in prison. Doctors who perform the procedure may face a sentence of six to twenty four months.

Abortions are illegal throughout most of Latin America, with the exception of Cuba and Mexico City. Nonetheless, an estimated 3.7 million women in Latin America have clandestine abortions every year.

Abortion is a multi-layered issue interwoven with themes of gender discrimination, culture, and religion. While many gender activists in Latin America argue that abortion is part of women's fundamental rights to health and security of person, the region's strong Catholic tradition militates against abortion's legalization. Many Latin American doctors are against abortion and have been known to report their patients to the authorities after surgeries where complications have arisen.

Yet the criminalization of abortion multiplies the risks involved, often forcing women to seek help from untrained practitioners in unsanitary conditions. Cross cutting the problem of medical safety is the issue of socio-economic inequality. While most middle or upper class women in Latin America can obtain safe abortions in spite of legislation, poor women generally cannot.

According to the Human Development Index and Gender Development Index, inequality is relatively low in Uruguay compared to most Latin American countries. But socio-economic disparities and gender discrimination continue to plague Uruguayan society. In a report issued earlier this month, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women expressed its concern over high incidences of teen pregnancy and maternal mortality in Uruguay. CEDAW also cited high secondary school drop out rates, low public participation and under/unemployment as severe problems for Uruguayan women - especially those of rural background or African descent.

Upon vetoing the bill to legalize abortion in Uruguay, President Vasquez argued that "it is more appropriate to look for a solution based on solidarity, giving a woman the freedom to make other choices and thereby save both her and the baby." Yet when access to education or health care is limited - as it often is for poor or rural women - making informed choices about reproductive health is difficult. Mr. Vasquez's veto reflects both a denial of the structural inequalities that impact women's personal security and health, and a negation of women's right to control over their bodies. For a country which, according to CEDAW, has made important strides toward ending gender discrimination, the veto is a disappointing retreat from the principles of equality and justice.

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