Abortion is a polarizing issue wherever you go, and that includes Latin America. On September 26, in the midst of vociferous protests from proponents and opponents, Uruguay’s Cámara de Diputados (lower house of the General Assembly) approved a law that would legalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. In studying this development, I get the sense that the bill is a result of a healthy dose of political processing and compromise. It’s hard for me to imagine a similar type of bipartisan compromise here in the U.S.
The law still needs to be approved by the Uruguayan Senate, but this body has already voted for a more liberal piece of legislation, and passage is likely. President Jose Mujica is also likely to approve the law. This marks a change from his predecessor in the Presidential Palace. In December 2008, President Tabare Vázquez vetoed the Sexual Health and Reproduction Law, which also would have decriminalized abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and had passed both houses of the Assembly. The President’s actions demonstrate the rift in Uruguayan society – Congressmen from President Vázquez’ leftist Frente Amplio (“Broad Front”) supported the measure, and a poll showed that 57% of Uruguayans favored legalizing abortion.
President Mujica is also a member of Frente Amplio, but the political circumstances are different, which is why the bill is headed for passage. Before the October 2009 presidential election, The Economist described Mujica as “a roly-poly former guerrilla, who, after 14 years in prison, grows flowers on a small farm and swears by vegetarianism.” Mujica fought against the state in the 60’s as a member of the communist Tupamaros movement. Could he have possibly imagined becoming the elected president, or propping up a successful free-market economy? This is what’s going on; Mujica has come on the heels of President Vázquez, whose capitalist economic policies are popular. Under Vázquez and Finance Minister Danilo Astori, foreign investment climbed, public debt declined by 20% of GDP, and unemployment fell from 12% to around 7% in this agricultural-commodity-based economy.
To wed his government with that of Vázquez, Mujica kept Astori and promoted him to Vice President. Continuity and practicality are the story of the current government; opposing congress on an ideological decision favored by the people is not. I don’t know what Mujica thinks of abortion, but I bet that he would not have the political capital to veto the bill if he wanted to. President Vázquez fostered confidence in the government’s decisions, and the populace favors stability. Ironically, Vázquez’ successful efforts lead the current president to now support a policy that Vázquez opposed.
What helps is that the bill is far from perfect, for either side of the abortion debate. The anti-abortion movement goes on and on decrying any form of legalization as an institutional sin. However, the bill has plenty that pro-choicers don’t like. Before receiving permission, a woman is required to explain her decision to seek an abortion to a gynecologist, a mental health worker, and a social worker. She is required to listen to alternatives, such as adoption, and must wait five days to “reflect.” A provision requiring approval from a judge for women under 18 presents the scary danger of bureaucratic holdups. However, these are compromises, and they are necessary to obtain passage of legislation on controversial issues.
The bill passed 50 to 49, after 14 hours of debate. Perhaps it’s a healthy result of the democratic process, where legislators pass a law favored by a small majority of the population after significant negotiation. According to Fox News, a September survey showed that 52% of Uruguayans supported legal abortion, with 34% against. Could Republicans and Democrats in our Congress sit down and hammer out a compromise on any controversial policy, thereby moderating the partisan rancor that paralyzes American government? Not in the era of Boehner and Pelosi. Uruguay’s legislative process is a landmark example for Latin America (only Cuba and Mexico City give comparable permission for abortion). It is also an example for the United States to follow.