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URUGUAY: Congress Votes to Legalise Abortion, But Veto Likely

Diana Cariboni

MONTEVIDEO, Nov 11 2008 (IPS) - Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez and his cabinet have 10 days to promulgate or veto a bill that would decriminalise abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, which was passed Tuesday by the Senate.

A year ago, in November 2007, the Senate approved the original version of the bill on sexual and reproductive health. On Nov. 5, it barely squeaked through the lower house of Congress, but with slight modifications, which meant it had to clear the Senate again, which it did with 17 of the 30 senators present.

However, socialist President Vázquez of the governing left-wing Broad Front has long announced that he would veto the bill.

“For us, the verdict was in on Wednesday Nov. 5, but today marks the start of the 10 day countdown for the executive branch to promulgate or veto the bill,” women’s rights activist Lilián Abracinskas, one of the driving forces behind the legislation, told IPS.

“Today Uruguay has drawn the world’s attention for having achieved the change in our legislation, thanks to the persistence, perseverance and mobilisation of the social movements, and especially the women’s movement,” said Abracinskas, the head of Women and Health in Uruguay (MYSU).

She was referring to the national Coordination of Social Organisations for the Defence of Reproductive Health, an umbrella made up of trade unions, social groups, women’s rights organisations, the youth sections of leftist parties, professionals, and some Protestant groups.

The bill would legalise abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, overturning a 1938 law that made abortion illegal.

Under the 1938 legislation, abortion is punishable by three to nine months in prison for the woman herself, and by six to 24 months in prison for doctors or others who help her undergo an abortion.

Vázquez, a medical doctor, has long stated that he would veto that portion of the law, based on personal ethical convictions.

“The announcement of the veto has never been based on a solid political argument,” but merely on personal reasons which, although they are “very respectable,” cannot determine state policies, said Abracinskas.

The Broad Front “has historically provided the votes for any initiative involving change,” which means the fate of the bill has now become “an internal issue for our political force,” she said.

Under the Uruguayan constitution, the executive branch has 10 days to raise objections to a draft law and send it back to Congress, which can override the objections with the votes of three-fifths of the legislators.

But the veto “is not the exclusive power of the president,” says a report drawn up by the head of the MYSU’s legal team, lawyer Óscar López Goldaracena.

The constitution states that the president’s veto must be supported by the corresponding cabinet minister(s) – in this case, Public Health Minister María Julia Muñoz, who has already made it clear that she will back the president’s decision.

But the veto can also go through “the Council of Ministers, which is made up of all of the ministers and the president, and must adopt the majority decision, with the president’s vote worth double in case of a tie,” said López Goldaracena.

If the president and the relevant minister(s) agree to veto a bill, the Council of Ministers can revoke their veto by an absolute majority, because it is the highest executive level organ, said the jurist. But if the decision to veto is proposed to the Council, “it cannot afterwards be adopted by agreement” between the president and the minister(s) concerned, he explained.

According to Abracinskas, “eight of the 13 ministers, if they take a stance that is coherent with their previous declarations and positions,” should reject the veto.

“In our view, this would be the best political and democratic message,” she added.

“We have not sat back with our arms crossed for all of these years, and we will not do so over the next 10 days,” said the activist. “Our efforts will be aimed at showing that there will be political costs” for those responsible for standing in the way of the new law, she warned.

Opinion polls show that a majority of the population is in favour of the decriminalisation of abortion. In the latest survey, published this month by the polling company Interconsult, 57 percent of respondents were in favour of the law and 42 percent were against, while 63 percent were opposed to a presidential veto.

In case of a veto, Abracinskas doubts that the legislature would be able to override it, but said the movement would press nevertheless for a vote in Congress.

If the bill is not signed into law, the main problem that it is designed to address “will be left unresolved,” she said: the fact that unsafe, illegal abortions have become the leading cause of maternal mortality in Uruguay.

The only route left would be to make the question “an issue in next year’s election campaign,” said Abracinskas.

In this South American country of 3.2 million people, an estimated 33,000 abortions are performed annually, compared to 55,000 births, according to the study “Condemnation, Tolerance and Denial: Abortion in Uruguay” by the International Research and Information Centre for Peace (CIIIP).

That gives a ratio of four abortions for every 10 pregnancies.

Abortion has thus effectively become a birth control method, and is illegal but readily available – for those who can afford it, says the study.

Legislative solutions to the problem of unsafe abortions have been discussed and debated in Uruguay for two decades.

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