Lessons in progressive politics

Something unexpected happened when Uruguayan politicians tried to liberalise their country's archaic abortion laws. 
Michael Cook | Nov 19 2008 | comment  

Tabaré VázquezIt's a familiar  scenario: a tall, photogenic, charismatic left-leaning President who outsmarted traditional political forces to win office with 51.7 percent of the national vote. His platform is social justice, tax reform, human rights, better health coverage, and banning smoking in public. His party controls both houses of the legislature. Elected in the midst of an economic crisis, the pundits described his campaign of hope as "the most profound political rupture in recent history".

And despite diplomatic rows, environmental controversies and a bitter dispute over free trade, perhaps the most controversial decision of his term is a Congressional proposal to dramatically liberalise abortion.

So what did President Tabaré Vázquez, do about a bill to give Uruguay the most progressive abortion law in Latin America? He vetoed it.

This has angered activists for abortion rights and even his own party, Frente Amplio (Broad Front) which had sponsored the bill. The “Law in Defence of the Right to Sexual and Reproductive Health” would have authorised first trimester abortions when a woman's health is at risk or the family is too poor to care for a child. By US standards, this is conservative enough, but the current law in Uruguay makes abortion a criminal offence

What was most interesting about Vázquez's veto,however, is not the politics, but his thoughtful, scientific response to the proposed legislation. He is a French-trained cancer specialist who still does consultations in an oncology clinic. If his religious convictions influenced his decision, he kept them to himself -- he is a Mason. Here is what he said:

There is a consensus that abortion is a social evil which must be avoided. Nonetheless, in those countries where abortion has been liberalised, it has increased. In the United States, in the first ten years, they tripled, and the figure has been maintained. It has become customary. The same thing happened in Spain.

Laws cannot ignore the reality of the existence of human life in its gestational stage, just as science reveals it. Biology has evolved greatly. Revolutionary discoveries, such as IVF or sequencing the human genome, show that from the moment of conception there is a new human life, a new being. So much so, that in modern legal systems, including our own, DNA has become the acid test of determining the identity of persons, independent of their age, even if the body is destroyed, or when practically nothing is left of the human being, and even after a long time.

The true degree of civilisation of a nation is measured by how the neediest are protected. Therefore we must protect the weakest amongst us. Because the criterion is not the value of the subject with respect to how others respond to him, or his usefulness, but the value which exists due to his mere existence...

This text also affects freedom of enterprise and association when it imposes upon medical institutions with legally approved statues which have, in some cases, been functioning for more than a hundred years, an obligation to perform abortions, expressly contrary to their foundational principles.

The law, furthermore, describes, erroneously and in a strained fashion, against common sense, abortion as a medical act, ignoring international declarations... which reflect the principles of Hippocratic medicine which characterise the doctor as someone who acts in favour of life and physical integrity.

In accordance with the particular characteristics of our people, it is better to seek a solution based upon solidarity which promotes women and their babies, giving them the freedom to be able to choose other ways, and in this fashion, to save both of them.

We need to tackle the true causes of abortion in our country which are rooted in our socio-economic circumstances. There are many women, particularly in the poorest sectors, who are alone in the task of raising children. Hence, we should protect abandoned women with solidarity, instead of offering them abortions.

Perhaps President Vázquez could forward a copy of this letter to Uruguay's Congress to his counterpart in the United States, along with a few political tips. His veto may have exasperated colleagues and angered abortion activists, but it hasn't dented his popularity, even though 57 per cent of voters in this very secular country support liberal abortion laws.

According to MercatorNet's South American correspondent, Pedro DuTour, ministers in the Frente Amplio are scuttling about trying to change the constitution to allow Vázquez to run for a second term. He has a popularity rating of 63 percent. Opposing abortion doesn't have to be a political death sentence for a progressive politician.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. (Translation by MercatorNet staff.)

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