Why Uruguay’s Move to Legalize Abortion is Not a True Victory

How does a country like Uruguay on the predominantly Catholic continent of South America move toward legalizing abortion? By not disrupting the patriarchal assumption that a woman is incapable of making moral decisions on her own.

At the end of September the Chamber of Deputies narrowly voted 50-49 to adopt a controversial bill that would decriminalize first-trimester abortions. If approved by the senate and signed by the president as expected, Uruguay will become the second Latin American country to legalize abortion. (Cuba was the first.) Undoubtedly, this would be a significant step forward for those advocating for reproductive rights and access in the country, but pro-choice activists are hesitant to hail it a true victory.

Included in the legislation are many requirements that a woman must meet in order to undergo the procedure—undermining her decision-making process about her reproductive life. Instead of ensuring access, this extensive hoop-jumping creates unnecessary barriers to what will be a legal medical procedure. 

Requirement 1: A woman seeking an abortion must first meet with a panel of professionals, consisting of a gynecologist, a psychologist, and a social worker, and justify her decision to terminate the pregnancy. She must, in effect, plead her case before a panel that will determine her reproductive destiny.

Even if the panel consists of the most compassionate doctor, the most understanding psychologist, and the most empathetic social worker, the requirement that a woman first consult experts before she can access abortion care is rooted in the belief that a woman cannot be trusted to determine what is best for her own life and her family.

Requirement 2: The panel must advise the woman about adoption and resources if she decides to parent. This assumes that a woman has not carefully considered the alternatives prior to requesting an abortion. While every woman has the right to comprehensive, accurate information about all of her options, the appropriate time to provide that information is clearly not after she has made her decision.

The point of providing this counseling about alternatives is not really to inform, but to question and stigmatize the woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy.

Requirement 3: Assuming the panel approves the procedure, a woman must then wait an additional five days before she can have the abortion. This mandatory waiting period is described in the bill as a time of reflection, but it’s really just another obstacle. Logistically, the five-day wait will prove nightmarish for a woman on the cusp of her second trimester (procedures will only be legal through twelve weeks and one day).

This multi-step hoop-jumping process is obviously meant to cause delays, frustrations, and embarrassment for the women of Uruguay.

What might this look like for a woman seeking an abortion? At the earliest, a woman suspects a pregnancy after she misses her period. If she has access to a pregnancy test, she might be able to confirm her pregnancy when she is about five weeks pregnant. This leaves her at most six weeks and a few days to go through the process of requesting a time before the panel, obtaining approval, and waiting for five days before she can get the procedure.

Let’s assume a woman has knowledge of her reproductive physiology and confirms her unintended pregnancy well in advance of twelve weeks, so that she has sufficient time to consider her options. Let’s also assume she is at least eighteen years old (minors need parental consent), and has knowledge of the process required, access to a medical facility, and a doctor who performs abortions. She also has strong verbal skills to articulate her decision before the “panel of judges.” In the very best case scenario, she will encounter sympathetic ears, receive approval from the board, stomach the lecture of other options, endure the mandatory waiting period, and eventually obtain abortion care before the end of her twelfth week of pregnancy.

Realistically, few women seeking abortions will have an experience like this. The ones who will are privileged women who have never had a problem accessing safe abortion procedures, despite its illegality. Women who are poor, young, in abusive relationships, living in rural areas, or otherwise marginalized will be no closer to safe abortions than they were before this bill was introduced.

I would argue that more women will lose their lives because of this legislation. Those who attempt to follow the legal procedure but ultimately fail to meet all of the requirements will be left with few options: continue with the pregnancy or obtain an unsafe, illegal abortion after her twelfth week. In an unsafe environment, the risks of experiencing complications and even death are much higher. If a woman experiences post-abortion complications, she might not seek follow-up care out of fear of prosecution. Currently, the penalty for a woman who has obtained an illegal abortion is three to six months in prison.

As an advocate for reproductive justice, I am left wondering the same questions I ask myself each time a new restrictive abortion law is proposed: where is the compassion for the woman facing an unintended pregnancy? Until we move from a place of judgment to a place of empathy for women making difficult reproductive decisions, we are complicit in the needless suffering—even maternal death—caused by lack of access to abortion care and dangerous procedures.