Behind the scenes of Bolivia’s historic abortion law change

Eight years of grassroots advocacy

Monday, December 18, 2017

Bolivian women talking in the streetLocal leaders worked hard to inform their communities on the need for safe, legal abortion.

Update:  In response to political pressure and protests against some provisions of the newly enacted penal code, Bolivian President Evo Morales repealed the code in its entirety on Jan. 21, 2018—including the abortion provisions, even though they were not the subject of protests. A renewed effort to revise the code is expected, and Ipas Bolivia will be working alongside our partners to continue the fight for legal abortion access.


On Dec. 15, 2017, Bolivia made history by expanding provisions for legal abortion. But historic law change like this doesn't happen overnight.

Since 2009, Ipas Bolivia has trained and informed advocates for sexual and reproductive rights from across Bolivia’s diverse population, including rural indigenous communities that have little access to reproductive health care. As the movement grew, leaders formed the Pact for the Decriminalization of Abortion, a grassroots coalition of more than 50 organizations that advocated to expand provisions for legal abortion through revision of the country’s penal code.

In 2010, indigenous women's organizations also developed a Sexual and Reproductive Rights Draft Bill, a legal framework for sexual and reproductive rights that is slated for review and approval in 2018. The bill addresses a range of topics such as sexual violence, HIV/AIDS, abortion, and family planning—issues often viewed as controversial in Bolivia.

In 2012, longtime safe abortion advocate and then-legislator Patricia Mancilla, a member of the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies from 2010-2015, initiated a review of the country’s penal code provisions that criminalized abortion. This lead to a 2014 court ruling ending a requirement for judicial authorization for women seeking abortion under the limited legal indications.

Ipas and partners like Bolivia’s Ministry of Justice then got to work ensuring law enforcement officers, health workers and women themselves understood the new legal grounds for accessing legal abortion care. A 2013 Ipas report, When Abortion is a Crime, included findings from Bolivia that hundreds of women were accused of illegal abortion and unjustly prosecuted or imprisoned.

Advocates spoke out, showing widespread support for law change

When the National Assembly was debating revision of the penal code to expand women’s access to legal abortion, anti-choice groups were vocal in their opposition. The Pact for the Decriminalization of Abortion organized various social media initiatives to harness the voices of support for abortion rights across the country—and around the world.

 One “twitter storm” using the hashtag #DespenalizaMiDecisión (or “Decriminalize my decision” in English) scored international attention and was Bolivia’s first feminist hashtag to trend widely on Twitter. Some tweets directed to Bolivian President Evo Morales reminded him that “poor, rural and indigenous women pay with their lives the cost of criminalization.”

The national debate was also fueled by women coming forward with their stories of being judged, discriminated against and turned away even when seeking legal abortion under the limited conditions for it. Other women told stories of being reported to police by their doctors when they had miscarriages, and then spending days in jail and suffering other injustices.

Throughout the process of developing the draft bill, Ipas Bolivia worked with all the organizations involved to offer technical assistance as strategic partners—with the goal of building and strengthening their capacities, their ability to exercise their rights, to be spokespeople for their own development and advocate for themselves.

Read more about some of the coalition leaders who helped make this historic law change possible: "Meet Bolivia's champions for abortion rights"