US Candidates Can Learn From "Uruguay Abortion Law" Debate

Created: 30 October, 2012
Updated: 17 October, 2022
3 min read
Photo: eldiario.com.uy

A central part of the 2012 election cycle has centered on debates about women— their role in the workplace and pay equality, the gender gap in voting patterns, and whether abortion should be legal.

In many ways, the debates over abortion appear to be anachronistic. It is 2012 and many politicians are arguing for completely reversing Roe v. Wade and criminalizing abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. Some of the justifications for this position seem bizarre and confounding for today’s day and age.

Todd Akin famously backed his viewpoint for criminalizing all abortion by making the argument that pregnancy rarely results from “legitimate rape.” More recently, Richard Mourdock explained that he opposes abortions with no exceptions because if a pregnancy results from rape, it is “something that God intended.”

The centrality of these arguments in the 2012 election must be placed in contrast to current debates in Uruguay, which just last week became the third nation in Latin America to decriminalize abortion.

Uruguay has always been progressive in its social policies dating back to the early twentieth century when Jose Batlle y Ordóñez assumed the presidency. During his two terms in office, Batlle instituted a series of bold social and political reforms which included legislation that created an urban minimum wage, social security, educational opportunities, labor rights, progressive taxation, and advances for women. As a result, Uruguay became known as the “Switzerland of Latin America” until the 1970s when a military regime stripped the nation of the reforms that set it apart from its regional neighbors.

In the past decade though, the country has been resuming its former mantel. Especially under its current president, José Mujica of the Frente Amplio, Uruguay has continued its experimental tradition in social policy to solve some of the nation's most pressing problems. Particularly, Mujica has moved to legalize marijuana under a state monopoly to minimize the damage of illegal drugs in the nation. Uruguay has also moved to decriminalize abortion, which came to a head last week in the Senate, and Mujica has indicated he will sign the bill.

Most importantly and most starkly in contrast to the US, however, the debate surrounding the Uruguay abortion law has generally been held at an incredibly high level. The bill barely passed the Senate in Uruguay with the slimmest of margins, 17-14, but instead of platitudes, the discourse has centered on the role of legalizing abortion to stop high-risk terminations versus whether there are ways that the law could encourage adoption instead.

As a result, the Uruguay abortion law ended in a compromise, which left neither side in the debate completely thrilled, but also without any extreme outcomes. The bill decriminalized abortion (rather than fully legalizing it) in the first fourteen weeks of pregnancy-- a semantic difference, but a compromise nonetheless. In addition, the bill still requires women to explain their desire to have an abortion with a gynecologist, social worker, and mental health professional, and to wait five days after meeting with the panel before the abortion can be performed.

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Despite these significant barriers, the law is still a major step forward for Uruguayan women. Also important, however, is the level of discourse at which this debate took place. American voters and candidates can learn something from Uruguay.

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