Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 39 Nos. 3

Social Consensus, Democratic Conflict: The Debate on the Decriminalisation of Abortion in Uruguay

Published on 1 July 2008

Since 1985, the year in which democracy was restored after 12 years of military dictatorship, initiatives attempting to amend the Penal Code in order to decriminalise the practice of abortion in Uruguay have been introduced in every term.

The current law, enacted in 1938, establishes that abortion is always a crime, but that judges may decide to mitigate the punishment or even acquit the defendant under some mitigating circumstances, as long as the procedure is performed by a medical doctor during the first trimester of gestation, except when the woman’s life is at risk. During the years in which the law has been in force, it has not been applied because the conditions for it to be implemented – providing access to services performing abortions under the circumstances established – have never been met (Abracinskas and López Gómez 2004). The fact that abortion is always defined as a crime and the fact that the admission of mitigating and acquitting circumstances is ambiguous make this a law that is impossible to implement (Dufau 1989).

The current law has proved to be ineffective in discouraging the practice. Very few people have been convicted for the crime of abortion and the termination of pregnancies is still a very widespread practice in the country. The cases involving convictions are almost exclusively connected to situations in which the woman involved died. This punitive law has simply encouraged the clandestine practice of abortion, which, most of the time, is carried out under unsafe conditions, and which continues to take a heavy toll on the health and lives of women. It would seem, then, that the main goal of criminalising abortion in Uruguay is not to reduce the practice, but to impose an atmosphere of social condemnation and disapproval deeply rooted in the double standard aimed at blaming and subjugating women who have had an abortion.

Over the last 20 years, support for the legalisation of abortion has grown. This has gone hand in hand with the process of recovery and consolidation of democratic life in the country, influenced by tensions inherent to the process of deep cultural transformation experienced by Uruguayan society. Understanding the struggle for safe, legal abortion in Uruguay, then, needs to be set within the broad context of the construction of democracy, citizenship and social participation.

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This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 39.3 (2008) Social Consensus, Democratic Conflict: The Debate on the Decriminalisation of Abortion in Uruguay

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Abracinskas, L. and Gómez, A., L. (2008) Social Consensus, Democratic Conflict: The Debate on the Decriminalisation of Abortion in Uruguay. IDS Bulletin 39(3): 72-76

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Lilián Abracinskas
Alejandra López Gómez

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Institute of Development Studies


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