Uruguay Senate engages in final abortion debate

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- Senators in Uruguay were debating Wednesday whether to legalize abortion, a groundbreaking step in Latin America, by accepting a compromise measure that has frustrated both sides of the bitter abortion debate.

The Senate already approved a more liberal version of the proposed law, but concessions made to gain the votes of more socially conservative members of Uruguay's lower house forced a second vote.

President Jose Mujica plans to sign it, unlike his predecessor Tabare Vazquez, an oncologist whose veto threat, based on his personal opposition to abortion, had stymied several previous attempts to legalize abortion in Uruguay. Mujica has said that whatever emerges from Congress will represent the will of the people and must be respected.

Cuba is the only country in the region where all women currently have access to first-trimester abortions.

Uruguay's measure would decriminalize the procedure but require women to justify themselves before a panel of experts and wait five days before confirming they want to go ahead. It also decriminalizes late-term abortions when the mother's life is at risk or the fetus is deformed. Rape victims would be able to get legal abortions through 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Judges would no longer be involved when adults seek the procedure, and while minors would need court approval, they need not get permission beforehand from their parents.

It's not the best law, "and not the solution we wanted, but it's an advance," said Sen. Luis Gallo, a supporter and member of the ruling Broad Front coalition. Women who decide to get abortions won't be penalized if they follow the rules, and thus avoid the "humiliating secrecy" of illegal abortions," he argued.

Sen. Alfredo Solari of the right-wing Colorado Party spoke out against the law.

"We're rushing to have abortions, but we're not rushing to promote adoption," he complained. "We are putting death before life."

Other opposition lawmakers have vowed to revoke the law if their parties win the next presidential election in 2014, or hold a plebiscite in hopes of overturning the law, even though polls show a majority of Uruguayans favor decriminalizing first-trimester abortions.

The vote is expected to be 17-14 in favor of legalizing abortion, with all 16 Broad Front senators voting yes, joined by one member of the opposition: Sen. Jorge Saravia, who was most most recently elected as a member of the Broad Front before switching back to his original center-right National Party.

Uruguay's closely-watched abortion debate is a major advance for the country's people, he said.

"We've given up being so cynical, to be able to debate this project," he said, praising his fellow citizens.


Pablo Fernandez in Montevideo contributed to this report.