Women’s rights groups in Bolivia hope that an overhaul of the country’s penal code could lead to a relaxation of the country’s restrictive abortion rules – and may even mark a stepping stone towards eventual decriminalisation.
In the coming weeks, the lower house of congress is expected to debate an article in the code that would broaden the conditions under which an abortion could be performed.“We consider that as a minimum, everything that has been proposed is likely to be incorporated [into the new code],” said Tania Nava, director of Catholics for the Right to Decide in Bolivia.
Under the country’s current penal code, abortion is outlawed in Bolivia save for cases of rape, incest and danger to the health of the woman. Until recently, terminations under these circumstances had to be authorised by a judge.
The revised penal code article – which has already been approved by the constitutional committee of the lower house – would allow a woman to terminate her pregnancy in the first eight weeks without penalty under a range of circumstances: if she lives on the street or in extreme poverty; hasn’t the resources to support herself or her family; already has various dependents she cannot support; or is a student.
Pregnancies could also be terminated at any point in situations where there is a risk to the life of the mother; where there is a risk to her integral health; in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities; where she has been the victim of rape or incest; or where she is a child or adolescent.
Abortions outside of these conditions could still lead to jail time of between one and three years for the women affected, however.
Activists say that Bolivia’s draconian abortion regime has only encouraged dangerous clandestine abortions. About 185 such clandestine abortions are performed each day in the country, according to IPAS, an NGO.
The Women’s Hospital of La Paz reported that in 2015, 10 women a day were admitted in a critical state as a result of botched illegal abortions. Underground abortions are the third most prevalent cause of maternal mortality, according to the Bolivian ministry of health. This contributes to a maternal mortality rate that the World Health Organisation puts at the second highest in South America at 206 per 100,000 – 23 times that of the UK.
Campaigners see the new code as a move in the right direction, but many hope that it is just a stage on the way to further liberalisation of abortion laws in Bolivia.
“It’s an important step to effectively ensure that many women who now resort to clandestine abortions will not have to do so and that the state will guarantee and ensure healthier conditions under which they can interrupt a pregnancy,” said Mónica Novilla, director of the Women’s Coordinator, a lobbying group. “But we were expecting more,” she added, noting that abortion should be dealt with as a public health issue rather than as part of a penal code.
The proposed reforms have sparked significant debate in Bolivia, with political parties split on the issue and various religious and medical groups lining up to oppose it. The Platform for Life and the Family, an umbrella anti-abortion group, has declared a “national emergency” and organised protest marches throughout the country.
Pastor Toto Salcedo, a spokesperson for the Platform and a prominent commentator, said that the new causes could act as a “gateway” to increasing the number of abortions in Bolivia. “We will continue the fight for life,” he said.
The penal code reform is currently under consideration in the chamber of deputies. Campaigners expect the article relating to abortion to be discussed by mid-July, with the new code in its entirety passed by the house by the end of the month. It would then proceed to the senate for consideration ahead of the August recess.