Uruguay legalises abortion — Or Does It?
From the BBC:
Uruguay has become the second country in Latin America, after communist Cuba, to legalise abortion for all women.
With a 17-14 majority, the Uruguayan Senate approved legislation that allows women to have an abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
The measure has divided opinion in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.
Pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners criticised the compromise that sealed the deal set to be signed into law by President Jose Mujica.
The proposal had already been approved by the lower house of Congress and the Senate, but politicians from both sides of the debate agreed further changes and held another vote.
Abortions versus adoptions
Pro-choice campaigners say many lives will be saved with the end of clandestine, high-risk terminations.
“With this law, we are joining the ranks of developed countries that have largely adopted a stance to liberalise, recognising the failure of criminal laws to avoid abortions,” said government Senator Luis Gallo.
Pro-choice campaigners reject changes to the proposal that forces women to justify before a panel of experts why they wish a termination.
After that, they will need to wait for several days – a period of reflection – before being able to state their final decision.
Anti-abortion politicians said the government should have adopted measures to encourage adoptions, rather than change the law.
“Abortion is not a medical act. It does not seek to protect and preserve a patient’s health,” said opposition Senator Alfredo Solari.
Abortion is legal and available on request in Cuba.
Abortion is also allowed up to the 12th week of pregnancy in many Mexican states and in the area of the capital, Mexico City.
In other Latin American countries, it is only allowed in cases of rape or health risk for the woman.
This law is akin to that in New York prior to the decriminalization of abortion in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade.
Until 1970, New York law permitted therapeutic abortion only to save a woman’s life: “An abortional act is justifiable when committed upon a female by a duly licensed physician acting under a reasonable belief that such is necessary to preserve the life of such female.” NY Penal Law Section 125.00 et seq.
This codification was essentially a continuation of the New York Penal law of 1881 which also had an exception for therapeutic abortions.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, after the advent of antibiotics, which reduced or eliminated many medical risks to pregnancy, New York hospitals developed the practice of using doctor’s panels, which were required to give their permission before an abortion could be performed in that hospital. Doctors and hospitals found that the demand for abortion did not decrease as its safety increased, and hospitals did not want to be viewed as abortion mills. The goal of these committees was to have a high ratio between live births and abortions at a particular hospital, to protect the hospital’s reputation. At these panels, two psychiatrists commonly gave their opinion that the woman was at risk of suicide, if forced to continue her pregnancy. These opinions were often given after cursory examination of the patient by psychiatrists, who believed abortion should be decriminalized entirely. In other cases, more lengthy interviews and diagnosis were required.
Alan Guttmacher described how his committee worked at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York:
The director of the obstetrical and gynecological service is chairman of the permanent abortion committee. The other members are the chief, or a senior attending, from the departments of medicine, surgery, neuropsychiatry, and pediatrics. The board has a scheduled weekly meeting-hour, and convenes routinely whenever a case is pending. No case is considered unless the staff ob-gyn desiring to carry out the procedure presents affirmative letters from two consultants in the medical field involved. Five copies of each letter must be filed at least forty-eight hours in advance of the meeting. The ob-gyn whose case it is, and one of the two consultants who made the recommendation must make themselves available at the meeting for further information when desired. In addition, if the chairman feels that an expert from some other department would be helpful in arriving at a proper decision, this specialist is requested to attend as a non-voting member. The case is then carefully discussed and if any member of the five on the committee opposes therapeutic interruption, the procedure is disallowed.
In effect, the committee doctors forced a woman, who did not want to carry any given pregnancy to term, to declare herself insane.
Often, in fact in 40% of cases nation-wide, a condition of a therapeutic abortion in a hospital was to consent to sterilization.
As a result of the humiliation of the hospital committee and the prospect of forced sterilization, many women took the risk of an illegal abortion.
The only good news out of this Kafka-esque labyrinth was that many doctors in New York, along with religious figures and women’s groups, united in the 1960’s to demand the decriminalization of abortion before fetal viability. That is what New York did in 1970, by legislative action.
The Uruguay law will not eliminate clandestine, illegal abortion. Women will not want to bare their personal lives to teams of strange psychiatrists and OB-GYNs and have themselves judged by a Medical Star Chamber. The law is a step forward, but let’s not celebrate yet. Hopefully, after seeing that the law does not work as intended, Uruguay will decriminalize the abortion entirely.
Then, Uruguay will really show the way for the rest of Latin America.