Analysis Abortion

Controversial Ruling Threatens Abortion Access in Uruguay and Beyond

Lauren Rankin

In 2012, Uruguay changed its law to allow abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. But a judge's ruling that a woman could not have an abortion without her ex-partner's consent sets a dangerous and possibly globally influential precedent valuing the fetus and father's wishes over those of the pregnant person.

A recent case in Uruguay has fueled a divisive public conversation about abortion in the country, where legal abortion is still very new.

On February 24, a Uruguayan local family judge ruled that a 24-year-old woman could not terminate her 10-week pregnancy after the woman’s ex-boyfriend tried to stop her from going through with the procedure.

In 2012, Uruguay became one of a few Latin American and Caribbean countries to legalize abortion, a moment that was heralded as groundbreaking for the entire region and later cited as a model for making abortion safer. The law legalized abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The law permitting abortion didn’t stop a judge from blocking someone from having one. In her ruling, Judge Pura Concepción Book argued that the unnamed woman’s decision to have an abortion violated international child-protection treaties and the Uruguayan Constitution, and infringed on the rights of the man who impregnated her, who opposed the abortion and with whom she already has a child.

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Essentially, Judge Book argued that the rights of the man and the rights of the fetus trump the rights of the pregnant woman—a dangerous global precedent.

“The woman complied with all the requirements set by the abortion law and is yet denied her right to access safe abortion services,” said Lucía Berro Pizzarossa, legal and advocacy adviser to Mujer y Salud en Uruguay, to Rewire. “This ruling basically gives men the right to veto the woman’s reproductive decisions[it’s] a violation of women’s dignity, health, autonomy, and life.”

To obtain a legal abortion in Uruguay, women must meet with a medical team and endure a mandatory five-day waiting period. That would have made it extraordinarily hard for this woman to have a legal abortion in Uruguay within the amount of time left for her—two short weeks.

Despite that, she and her lawyers vowed to appeal after the judge’s ruling.

But the case took an unexpected and abrupt turn earlier this month. According to the woman’s lawyer, she began to have back pain on February 24 and and soon after visited a medical center. On March 2, the woman miscarried.

Her ex-partner insists that he doesn’t believe her. He has filed a criminal complaint to investigate whether the woman self-induced an abortion, and through his lawyer, has publicly accused her of lying about her miscarriage. Her lawyer has said that she has four documented medical consultations between the original amparo filing claiming her former partner’s rights were violated and her ultimate miscarriage.

While horrifying for this woman and the women of Uruguay, it also has broader implications globally.

While abortion is legal in Uruguay, it is highly restricted, if not completely illegal, in most Latin American countries. In fact, El Salvador already jails women for their pregnancy outcomes, including those who have miscarriages, on the suspicion of abortion. Because this Uruguayan woman ultimately had a miscarriage, her case could allow anti-abortion forces in Uruguay to move in the direction of severely restrictive countries like El Salvador. This ruling could be the beginning of the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes in Uruguay.

It’s not limited to Latin America, either. Just last month, an Oklahoma lawmaker filed a bill that would force pregnant women seeking an abortion to obtain written permission from her sexual partner. The woman would also be required to provide his name to her physician and, if the partner wanted to challenge paternity, the procedure might be put on hold.

The Oklahoma bill, while still under consideration, is clearly unconstitutional in the U.S. context: The 1976 U.S. Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth struck down spousal consent in abortion cases. But the proposal of this bill not only lays bare the continuing rightward swing in the trajectory of abortion legislation in the United States, but undermines the basis of abortion rights globally: The rights of the pregnant person trump the concerns of anyone else.

That’s what makes this Uruguayan ruling so troubling: The judge didn’t just rule in favor of the ex-partner, but attempted to establish a global legal reasoning that could upend safe and legal abortion well beyond Uruguayan borders. The ultimate decision of whether to carry a pregnancy to term must rest with the pregnant person. If it doesn’t, women become involuntary vessels (or “hosts,” as a now-infamous anti-choice Oklahoma lawmaker proclaimed) stripped of their autonomy and basic liberty.

It’s still not clear what will happen to this woman. While she will not have to carry this pregnancy to term against her will, she is still being dragged through the judicial process and public mud by her ex-partner. Her pregnancy outcome is now open to potential criminalization. She has been called a liar and is the subject of a contentious national conversation.

Ultimately, this case reveals a truth that U.S. women know too well. Legal abortion is never a given; it’s never settled. It doesn’t require much imagination to picture a United States in which abortion is treated like a criminal act. Already, Alabama allows judges to appoint lawyers to fetuses. Women like Purvi Patel, Bei Bei Shuai, and Anna Yocca have already been criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes. A Texas rule mandating burial or cremation services for aborted or miscarried fetuses was just blocked by a federal judge.

While abortion technically remains a legal right in both Uruguay and the United States, it still doesn’t enjoy the full acceptance and protection of other human rights. Instead, women who seek an abortion are berated outside of U.S. clinics or smeared as selfish liars by former partners in the Uruguayan media. Abortion may be technically legal, but it doesn’t feel like it.

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