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Bolivia eases strict abortion law - rights group

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 26 February 2014 18:06 GMT

A pro-abortion activist is detained during a rally in Santiago, Chile, held to demand that abortion be "safe and free" and to reject its criminalization. Picture July 25, 2013, REUTERS/Carlos Vera

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Bolivia is the latest of several Latin American nations to relax strict abortion laws, though one reproductive rights NGO said Bolivia's action was only the first step. Botched abortions remain a leading cause of maternal death in the continent.

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bolivia’s highest court has ruled that women seeking a legal abortion in cases of rape or incest do not need a judge to give permission for  doctors to perform the procedure, making it easier and quicker for women to have a legal abortion, a reproductive rights group has said.

Abortion is only allowed in the Andean nation in cases of rape or incest, or if the woman’s health or life is at risk.

“This court ruling represents an important step for Bolivia,” Malena Morales, interim head of Ipas in Bolivia, a global non-governmental organisation on reproductive rights, said in a statement. “It removes some of the legal barriers that women face when seeking legal abortion care.”

Previously, women in Bolivia were ‘routinely’ denied authorisation from a judge to go ahead with a legal abortion, leaving them no recourse than to turn to unsafe and illegal abortions,  Ipas said in a 2012 study.

While the court ruling earlier this month confirmed that human life should be protected at the moment of conception and did not decriminalize abortion, it did give doctors more power to decide if abortions can go ahead in cases where a woman’s life or health is at risk.

The court also ruled that a women’s decision to keep or terminate her pregnancy should not be influenced by the personal views and religious beliefs of judges or lawyers.

The ruling was the latest of several laws passed and court rulings handed down in Latin America in recent years to decriminalise abortion.

“Once again a Latin American court has ruled that governments should not stand in the way of women seeking legal health services. This opinion follows earlier favourable court rulings from Mexico City and Colombia, and adds to a growing body of national and international jurisprudence that affirms women’s rights to legal abortion,” Gillian Kane, Ipas senior policy adviser, said in a statement.

In 2006, Colombia's constitutional court ruled that abortion was permissible under certain circumstances, overturning a blanket ban on abortion. More recently, in 2012 Uruguay’s senate voted to allow women to have an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

While some countries in Latin America are taking small steps to ease restrictions on abortion, some states in the United States, along with Spain and the Philippines, are making it harder for women to have a legal abortion and to access contraception.

Pro-choice campaigners in the United States say lawmakers in the states of Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana and Texas are gradually making it harder for women to have a legal abortion, either by cutting funding for women’s health clinics where abortions take place or by changing the rules for women wanting to terminate a pregnancy.

In Spain, conservative lawmakers voted by a narrow majority earlier this month to push ahead with a draft law that, if passed, would restrict abortion to rape victims and women whose health was in danger. Polls show the draft law is extremely unpopular among Spanish voters.

In the Philippines, the government approved a national budget in December that stopped all public funding for contraceptives, making it harder for women, especially the poor, to obtain  contraceptives, according to New-York based Centre for Reproductive Rights.

Latin America still has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws, and rights groups say that poor and indigenous women living in rural areas are disproportionately affected by unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions.

There are seven Latin America countries - Chile, Haiti, Suriname, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic - where abortion is banned outright, with no explicit exception written in law to save a pregnant woman’s life.

“While this decision is a positive change in Bolivia’s punitive abortion laws, it is only a first step,” said Ipas’s Kane. “There are still significant legal barriers that many women will not be able to overcome, and we know they will turn to unsafe abortion.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), botched abortions are a leading cause of maternal death throughout the world, accounting for 12 percent of maternal deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean, based on 2008 figures.

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