Page last updated at 17:22 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Abortion move divides Uruguay

By Veronica Psetizki

Uruguayan protestors
Moves to make abortion legal have divided opinion in Uruguay

The decision by the Uruguayan Congress to decriminalise abortion is being hailed by campaigners as a milestone for a country where most forms of abortion have been illegal for 70 years.

And it's a rare step in Latin America where abortion in most countries is considered a criminal act.

Previously abortion was illegal but a woman would not face sanction in the case of rape or if her life were in danger.

The new legislation would allow a woman to terminate her pregnancy in the first 12 weeks if her health is at risk or under certain other circumstances, such as extreme poverty.


Supporters of the bill hailed the Senate result as a historic victory which would reduce the number of women who die or become seriously ill after having to resort to illegal abortions.

However, their celebrations have been muted because one big obstacle remains.

Uruguay's President Tabare Vazquez, a doctor by profession, has said he will veto the legislation, even though it was proposed and approved by members of his Broad Front coalition.

"His medical background and his religion have influenced his views." said Juan Carlos Doyenart, a political analyst.

Church leaders threatened to excommunicate any lawmakers voting in favour.

That in turn provoked strong reactions from all political parties, who criticised the Church's meddling, in a country where the Roman Catholic Church and the State split 90 years ago.

Tabare Vazquez
Tabare Vazquez opposes abortion on ethical and medical grounds

Following the vote in the Senate, which followed a similar one in the lower house last week, President Vazquez has 10 days to announce his decision, but government sources said a veto was expected soon.

If that happens, the measure would go back to Congress, where the presidential veto could be overturned if three-fifths of both houses of Congress vote to do so.

However, analysts say this is unlikely to happen.

The vast majority of the opposition were against the abortion law, and, as Mr Doyenart explains, some lawmakers from the government coalition who voted in favour may not do so again to avoid a political confrontation with the president.

Divided public

The controversial issue has divided Uruguay's 3.3m people, where research estimates that more than 33,000 abortions are performed each year.

A recent poll by Interconsult, a local pollster, found that 57% of Uruguayans supported the legalisation of abortion.

Although Mr Vazquez is a popular president, even some of his supporters have expressed discontent at his veto stance.

Of those polled, 63% were not in favour of his position.

"As a Catholic, I don't support the law," said Marta Martin, a Montevideo resident.

"As a citizen, I believe that if Congress approves a bill, a presidential veto is anti-democratic. I would have preferred a referendum," she added.

"I disagree with the presidential veto because he is not respecting the decision of the majority", said Ignacio Muno, a supporter of the legislation.

Another Montevideo resident, Ana Carrasco, said she also supported the bill, but said, "We have to respect the president's right to express his own point of view."

Senator Monica Xavier, from the governing party, and one of the bill's backers, told the BBC that many legislators who support the bill asked Mr Vazquez not to veto it, in order to allow a referendum on the issue.

If Mr Vasquez goes ahead with the veto, the chance of a referendum disappears.

"The approval of this bill opens new possibilities. Now we have to wait for the president's move," Monica Xavier said.

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