Legal abortion access greatly expanded in Bolivia

A national grassroots movement to save women’s lives celebrates success

Friday, December 15, 2017

Bolivian woman smiling

In a major step forward for reproductive rights in Bolivia, women and girls can now access safe, legal abortion in the first eight weeks of pregnancy under a broad range of circumstances. This historic law change—enacted today when Acting President Alvaro Garcia Linera signed the nation’s newly revised penal code, which contains specific provisions for legal abortion—comes after years of advocacy by a grassroots movement representing Bolivia’s diverse population.

“The law has changed today because women and men across the country broke the silence on the harms of unsafe abortion and demanded change,” says Malena Morales, director of Ipas Bolivia. “Today’s success proves the importance of a grassroots movement that empowers real people from all walks of life to express why safe, legal abortion will save lives in their communities.”

Until now, abortion was only legal in cases of rape, incest and immediate risk to a woman’s health or life. Consequently, unsafe abortion is the third leading cause of maternal death in Bolivia, and an estimated 185 women undergo clandestine, usually unsafe, abortions every day.

The new penal code specifies a broader range of legal indications for abortion—including to protect against current or future risks to a woman’s health or life, if the pregnant woman is already responsible for the care of others, and if the pregnant person is a child, an adolescent or a student.

Diverse leaders built a grassroots movement

Over the past eight years, Ipas Bolivia has worked with community advocates for sexual and reproductive rights from across Bolivia’s diverse population, which has more than 30 indigenous groups. Indigenous communities are mostly rural, with little access to reproductive health care, and women and girls in these communities suffer disproportionately from unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to this reality,” says Bolivian Senator Máxima Apaza Millares, who is also president of the Parliamentary Network for Children and Adolescents. “What I want is a health system policy that offers safe medical care for women who want abortions. With the reform of the penal code, for the first time women will be able to decide over their own bodies and that decision must be respected.”

With Ipas Bolivia’s continued support, advocates and their organizations across the country informed and trained communities on the importance of ending unsafe abortion. Subsequently, more than 50 civil society organizations, including Ipas Bolivia, formed the Pact for the Decriminalization of Abortion to fight for approval of the revised penal code’s provisions on legal abortion.

Throughout the national debate over abortion rights that accompanied the government’s revision of the penal code, coalition spokespeople and leaders helped keep a spotlight on the real lives that would be saved by safe, legal abortion—and the real voices from their communities asking for that change.

“Laws are not passed on their own, especially laws involving rights,” says Estanislao Rojas Carmona, an activist from Potosí in the southern Bolivian highlands. “This is a historic matter. Women are taking their futures into their own hands.”

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