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Uruguay's Senate approves abortion bill: Will there be a ripple effect?

Uruguay's Senate approved a bill legalizing first-trimester abortions, and the president says he will sign it. Abortion is still a political hot potato in Latin America, but some say such legislation could spread.

By Ed StockerCorrespondent / October 19, 2012

Uruguayan senators of the ruling party Frente Amplio vote in favor of legalizing abortion in Montevideo, Uruguay, Wednesday, Oct. 17. The Uruguayan Senate on Wednesday voted to legalize all first trimester abortions in a groundbreaking step in Latin America.

Matilde Campodonico/AP

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Buenos Aires

Uruguay paved the way for one of the most far-reaching abortion rights laws in Latin America this week when its Senate voted to legalize the procedure during the first trimester of pregnancy. The controversial decision has sparked speculation as to whether regional neighbors – from liberal Argentina to conservative Chile – could follow suit.

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Uruguay’s Senate vote on Wednesday put the southern cone nation “at the forefront of countries that have established [these] rights,” says Véronica Pérez, a political scientist at Montevideo’s University of the Republic. President Jose Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla, is expected to sign the bill into law.

Though Uruguay is already considered one of the most liberal countries in the region – it was one of the first Latin American nations to officially separate the state from the Catholic church in the early 1900s, and it recently floated the idea of legalizing marijuana – the abortion debate has been met with considerable opposition.

This week’s vote was the third time the bill has been introduced in the Uruguayan Parliament and the Senate’s final vote tally of 17 in favor and 14 against shows how divisive the issue remains. A previous bill was approved in 2008, but then-President Tabaré Vázquez vetoed it.

“Legislation is a long, long process in a region where very few countries have decriminalized abortion,” says Marta Alanis, a member of Argentina’s National Campaign for the Right to Abortion, based in Córdoba.

The regional climate

In Latin America, abortion is permitted only in Mexico City and Cuba. Uruguay’s larger neighbors, Brazil and Argentina, continue to ban the procedure unless the pregnancy is the result of a rape or the woman’s life is in danger. In Chile, abortion is illegal under all circumstances.

The Catholic church and the powerful pro-life lobby continue to be the major obstacles to change in legislated reproductive rights in Latin America. But politicians, too, are reluctant to tackle such a polemical hot potato.

“Abortion isn’t an issue that political parties use to differentiate themselves in  Latin America,” says Ms. Pérez, the political scientist. “This isn’t an issue that forms part of their campaigns. In reality, these are ideas that tend to divide the electorate and different social groups. There isn’t a consensus.”

In contrast to divisions among politicians, however, a September survey by the polling firm CIFRA found that 52 percent of Uruguayans would vote in favor of the law if they could. Some 34 percent said they would vote against it. And the legalization movement is gathering strength in neighboring countries, including Argentina, where a parliamentary debate is likely to take place next year.

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