A national grassroots movement to save women’s lives celebrates success
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political pressure and protests against some provisions of the newly enacted penal code, Bolivian President Evo Morales repealed the code in its entirety on Jan. 21, 2018—including the abortion provisions, even though they were not the subject of protests.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.
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
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
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“
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