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November 18, 2008
Uruguayan president vetoes abortion bill

President Tabaré Vázquez vetoed a bill that would have legalized abortion in Uruguay. Photo: Presidencia de la Republica Oriental del Uruguay

President Tabaré Vázquez used his veto pen to stop a bill that would have legalized abortion in Uruguay, keeping the procedure illegal.

Uruguay has been secular for much of its history, unlike many other Latin American nations. The bill had passed in the Uruguayan House and Senate, but parliament did not gain the three-fifths support necessary to override Vázquez ‘s veto. The president, a doctor, cited “the reality of the existence of human life in the gestation period” in his explanation for the veto.

Benjamin Gedan is a Fulbright research scholar living in Montevideo and studying the Uruguayan media. He writes at his blog, “Small State,” about the ongoing Uruguayan abortion debate.

In secular Uruguay, abortion still a criminal act

At first glance, the decision by Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez to veto legislation legalizing abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy is surprising. After all, the president’s own party, the Frente Amplio, promoted the legislation in both the House and Senate. The very fact that abortion is illegal in Uruguay, by far the most secular country in Latin America, seems out of place. For example, in Mexico, where the Catholic Church is far more influential, the capital city legalized abortion in April 2007.

But what seems clear is that Uruguayans are far more comfortable skipping out on church on Sunday than accepting abortion. A recent poll by Interconsult found that only 57 percent of Uruguayans support the legalization of abortion, the BBC reported.

In a statement, Vázquez framed his objections in secular terms: “Los derechos son la ética de la democracia, la vida de todos es el bien primero por el que deben velar los gobiernos democráticos” (“Legal rights are the ethics of democracy, and human life is the primary object that democratic governments should value”). But as my Fulbright colleague and guest-blogger Todd Martinez has observed, Uruguayans, though hardly churchgoers, are not exactly atheists either. Read Todd’s take on the abortion debate here.

I’ve heard that Vázquez may ultimately come out in favor of a referendum on the abortion issue, or simply leave the issue to the next president. If the Frente Amplio wins the presidency for the second time and keeps control of Congress, Uruguay may very well end up with an abortion law that matches its global image. For now, however, women who have an abortion and the doctors who help them still face prison, and abortion is only allowed in cases of rape or if the life of the mother is in danger.

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