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HEALTH-URUGUAY: US Lawmakers Meddle in Abortion Law Debate

Diana Cariboni

MONTEVIDEO, May 7 2004 (IPS) - A letter that six U.S. legislators recently faxed to Uruguay’s senators, urging them to vote against a bill that would have legalised abortion in this South American country, amounted to undue pressure and meddling, according to legislators and activists.

The letter, dated Apr. 30, was ”a non-habitual form of communication between lawmakers from different countries” which, by appearing ”in the midst of the debate on the bill, amounted to a serious case of undue pressure,” socialist Senator Mónica Xavier, one of the sponsors of the ”law for the defence of reproductive health”, told IPS.

”We encourage you in this historic time in your country…to (vote) against this pro-abortion bill and also to refuse to leave it up to a referendum,” says the two-page letter faxed from the office of Representative Christopher Smith.

The letter, to which IPS had access, was signed by Republican Party representatives Smith (New Jersey), Todd Akin (Missouri), Jo Ann Davis (Virginia), Mike Pence (Indiana), Steve King (Iowa) and Joseph Pitts (Pennsylvania).

The bill ”on which the Senate is about to vote would legalise the violent murder of unborn children and the exploitation of women through abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy,” the letter adds.

The U.S. lawmakers’ concern over the possibility that the bill, which already made it through the Chamber of Deputies, would be approved by the Senate was reported Tuesday by the Montevideo daily La República.

Xavier, who belongs to the leftist Encuentro Progresista-Frente Amplio coalition, slated to win the October general elections, said she was sending a message Friday to Uruguayan Foreign Minister Didier Opertti asking the government to determine whether the letter merits an official reaction.

The bill was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 17 to 13 in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Several legislators told IPS they received the fax, but said it was not brought up during the Senate debate.

Senator Guillermo García Costa of the centre-right National Party, who was opposed to the bill, said he did not remember the precise content of the letter.

Senator Xavier said the lack of reactions to the fax could be due to ”the flood of messages, letters and even video recordings that we have received, some surprisingly aggressive and violent,” while the bill was being considered.

The statements of Roman Catholic Archbishop of Montevideo Nicolás Cotugno, for example, ”set such a high ceiling for the pressure, when he accused us (the sponsors of the bill) of being terrorists,” that it would be difficult to equal.

”What difference is there between an 18-year-old youngster who flies through the air, shot out of a train in Madrid by a dynamite explosion, and a human being at just two months of gestation that is in the mother’s uterus when they insert forceps and smash its head and then pull it out in pieces and throw it in a garbage can?” asked Cotugno, alluding to the Mar. 11 terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Spain.

The faxed letter drew an outcry from women’s groups in the United States.

On Tuesday, four U.S. non-governmental organisations sent the Uruguayan Senate their own message, ”repudiating” what they called ”flagrant meddling” in Uruguay’s sovereignty and democratic process and in the legislative and citizen debate on the bill.

The lawmakers who have meddled in the internal affairs of your country represent 1.4 percent of the members of the U.S. congress, added the International Women’s Health Coalition, Catholics for a Free Choice, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and IPAS, an international organisation that has been working for three decades to reduce abortion-related deaths and injuries around the world.

The president of IPAS, Elizabeth Maguire, said the letter sent to all of Uruguay’s senators was part of ”a continuing assault on the reproductive rights of women at home and abroad,” this time by ”six extreme anti-choice members of the United States Congress.”

”The lobbying efforts of these anti-choice members of Congress interfere with the democratic process in Uruguay by promoting false, ideologically-based propaganda about abortion,” said Maguire. ”Our experience in the United States and around the world clearly shows that safe, legal abortion saves women’s lives, not destroys them.”

In this country of 3.4 million, an estimated 33,000 abortions are practiced every year, compared to 55,000 births – a proportion of four abortions for every 10 pregnancies, according to the study ‘Condemnation, Tolerance and Denial: Abortion in Uruguay’ by the International Peace Research and Information Centre (CIIIP).

Abortion has thus turned into a de facto birth control method, and is illegal in name only, says the study.

But the high cost of a safe abortion – 500 to 600 dollars – in well-equipped clandestine clinics is far out of the reach of poor women.

”It is extremely serious that one out of three maternal deaths between 1997 and 2001 were caused by complications arising from abortions practiced in risky conditions – a cause that is not only preventable but also virtually non-existent in countries where safe abortion services are available,” the Medical Union of Uruguay (SMU) – the doctors’ union – said last week.

In 2001, the total number of maternal deaths in Uruguay was 19, up from nine in 2000. In 2002, five women died of complications arising from unsafe abortions.

The maternal mortality rate climbed from 17.1 per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 36.6 per 100,000 in 2001 (the latest figure from the National Statistics Institute).

The bill would have made abortion legal in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and would also have made it obligatory for any pregnant woman wishing to abort to receive information and social and psychological assistance.

In addition, it would have made sex education mandatory in all schools, while providing for free family planning and reproductive health services and contraceptives.

Abortion remains illegal in nearly all countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. But every year, more than four million abortions are practiced in the region, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

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