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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.

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The topic has dominated Argentine media since March, when the Supreme Court declared that non-punishable abortions did not need to be approved by a judge. But problems remain and earlier this month a judge stepped in to stop a victim of sexual abuse from having an abortion in a Buenos Aires hospital.

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But Uruguay’s new law has been criticized by some pro-choice groups for not going far enough: The law stipulates that women have to meet with a board of medical experts and explain the “economic, social, family, or age difficulties that in her view stand in the way of continuing the pregnancy,” according to the bill. The board will explain the alternatives and the woman will then have five days to reflect on her decision. The bill’s conditions, some argue, don’t allow a woman to make her own free decision.

Ripple effects?

Despite its drawbacks, the law remains a landmark decision in Latin America, and is something pro-choice campaigners hope will have regional ripple effects.

But the road ahead may be long: Although there have been many advances in terms of sexual rights in Latin America – most notably with Brazil and Argentina legalizing same-sex unions in 2004 and 2010, respectively – abortion is extremely divisive.

“In terms of the reactions and conflicts [abortion and same-sex marriage] provoke in society,” pushing same-sex unions isn’t the same as advocating the legalization of abortion, says Pérez. “For same-sex marriage or gay adoption, for some men it’s like ‘that’s OK, I don’t like it much but it doesn’t affect my rights,’” she says. “On the other hand, a woman’s decision to interrupt her pregnancy strikes at the core of masculine decision-influencing power.”

For Ms. Alanis, the abortion rights campaigner, the cultural and historical similarities between Argentina and Uruguay mean that abortion legalization in Uruguay is bound to influence her country.

“I think we’ll see a decriminalization of abortion before President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner finishes her mandate [in 2015],” Alanis says.

But, if the abortion agenda is progressing in Argentina and Brazil, then Chile remains the exception, widely held to be the most conservative country in the region, where divorce was only legalized in 2004.

“Uruguay legalizing abortion or Argentina granting same-sex marriages are solid international examples that show that in Chile we’re not mad if we want to approve divorce, gay marriage, or abortion,” says Cristóbal Bellolio, an academic at Santiago’s Adolfo Ibáñez University.

The Uruguay ruling helps, Mr. Bellolio says. “What we’re doing is basically following a universal tendency [in legalizing liberal policies] that, far from destroying society, does exactly the opposite." 

Pérez says regional change is on the horizon. “Experience has shown us that legislation tends to happen with one country following another,” she explains. “If you look at sexual equality laws in Latin America, they’ve tended to advance in waves, too, with countries copying each other.”

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