Uruguayans decide if abortion goes to referendum

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MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — The most liberal national abortion law in South America was under attack on Sunday as Uruguayans were deciding whether to hold a referendum on repealing it.

Independent groups as well as some members of Uruguay's right-wing Colorado Party and the centrist National Party are leading the effort to overturn the measure, narrowly passed last October, which authorized elective abortions in the first three months of pregnancy.

If 25 percent of Uruguay's electorate votes on Sunday, officials would have 120 days to set a date for a binding referendum on whether to uphold or repeal the abortion law.

A survey by the CIFRA consulting firm this month showed that about 40 percent of people are likely to vote on Sunday, which would send the question to a formal referendum. CIFRA polled 1,008 people nationwide, with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Passage of the law was widely seen as a landmark for a region in which many countries outlaw abortion in all circumstances. Other than Uruguay, only Cuba and some local governments make early abortions accessible to all women.

The ruling Broad Front coalition of President Jose Mujica argued that the law would save many women from the risk of death or complications from illegal abortions.

"I want to defend the law because this issue has been debated for almost 100 years and many women paid with their lives ... during that long time that it was being discussed," lawmaker Monica Xavier said on the Broad Front's website.

Opposition to the measure remains strong, however, and some doctors, however, have refused to perform abortions for religious or ethical reasons.

"This is not an issue that only pertains to women," said National Party congressman Pablo Abdala. "We can't forget about the conceived (baby) ... with organs, DNA, a heart. And then there's the father. This law doesn't take into account the opinion of the father."

Several Uruguayan celebrities and sports figures have participated in radio and television spots urging people to vote for a referendum that would allow "profound discussion to reach a decision that truly represents the majority."

About 20 feminist organizations and unions have also launched a campaign under the motto: "I won't vote. What about you?"

They argue that a ban would not curb abortions, but only keep women from getting proper care.

About 400 abortions a month have been conducted since the new law came into force, said Deputy Health Minister Leonel Briozzo. It's unclear how many were carried out before the law.

"We don't have trusted statistics because it is a social practice that is not accepted and up until recently it was a crime," Constanza Moreira, a ruling-party lawmaker, told local radio.

About 45,000 babies are born each year in this country of about 3.2 million people.

Several polls say Uruguayans are roughly split when it comes to abortion and abortion-rights proponents had to make compromises to pass the law. Those include a requirement that women seeking abortions justify their request before a panel of at least three professionals — a gynecologist, psychologist and social worker — and listen to advice about alternatives including adoption and support services for a child. Women must then wait five days to reflect on the decision.

Cuba, which allows abortions in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, is the only country in Latin America where legal abortion is common. Argentina and Colombia allow it only in cases of rape or when the mother's life is endangered. Colombia also allows it when there is proof of fetal malformation. Mexico City has legalized first-trimester abortions, but there are restrictions in most other parts of the country.

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