According to Bolivia’s current Penal Code, which was adopted in 1973, abortion is permitted only when a pregnancy endangers a woman’s life or health and when no other measure can remove the potential danger. Article 266 of the Penal Code also permits abortion in cases of rape and incest. In both cases, the law stipulates that a judicial authorization must be obtained before a physician may terminate a pregnancy with the woman’s consent. To date there have only been six legal abortions in the Bolivia.
Bolivia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Latin America and complications from unsafe abortions account for approximately one-third of maternal deaths. The Bolivian government has included postabortion care (PAC) as a basic service within its Universal Health Insurance package; however, although PAC is routinely part of emergency obstetric services, many Bolivian women delay going to the hospital after an unsafe abortion because they fear poor treatment from healthcare professionals.
In January 2008, the CEDAW Committee expressed its concern stating, “The Committee urges the State party to adopt implementing regulations for existing laws on Bolivian women’s right to therapeutic abortion. The Committee also urges the State party to afford women access to high-quality services for the treatment of complications resulting from unsafe abortions with a view to reducing maternal mortality.”
One reason women have been unable to access safe and legal abortion care is because of delays in the judicial authorization process. This includes delays by district attorney offices, by the ways in which rape cases are characterized, and by the sentences or judgments made. Staff may know the existing standards and legal frameworks but do not observe these and public servants often do not oppose violations of human rights but rather tend to negotiate and seek compromises in these cases.
Moreover, should a woman or girl receive permission from a judge to access to a legal abortion, a considerable number of physicians will not provide the service claiming “conscientious objection.” In these cases the State should guarantee immediate access to healthcare providers who will provide the service, however to date no corresponding standards have been implemented.
We hope this situation will be rectified with the Supreme Court of Justice’s recent ruling to all lower courts judges obligating them to implement Article 266 of the Penal Code. The Court undertook this measure as part of a judicial sector commitment made during a March 2008 national symposium on sexual violence.
It is remarkable that the Supreme Court has intervened to mandate that the entire judicial system is responsible for guaranteeing an aspect of women’s human rights. And it is notable that in their letter to the lower courts the Supreme Court specifically cited the state’s responsibility to uphold international human rights treaties ratified by the Bolivian government.
The next step in the process, which is being closely monitored by Ipas-Bolivia, is to ensure that all lower courts receive relevant documentation (e.g., CEDAW statements, the national standards and guidelines for abortion care) to support them in implementing the law. In addition, civil society organizations will ensure that professionals in the legal and health sectors, as well as women throughout the country, are informed of this decision.
Ipas-Bolivia invites organizations to write to the President and Justices of the Bolivian Supreme Court to congratulate them on this ruling and to express support for efforts to ensure that relevant authorities and the general public are adequately informed.
You can send your letters to:
SR. PRESIDENTE Y MINISTROS DE SALA PLENA
CORTE SUPREMA DE JUSTICIA
Casillas de Correo 211 y 321
Sucre - Bolivia
Central Telefónica 591 - 4 - 6453200
Please send copies to Ipas-Bolivia at the following e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org