In spite of Church opposition, an abortion reform bill has passed in Chile
Until 21st August 2017, Chile had one of the world’s strictest policies on abortion. Michelle Bachelet’s Socialist government fought to contest the blanket ban on termination of pregnancy in all circumstances, punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment. A 6-4 ruling in court in favour of decriminalising abortion in three circumstances has marked long-awaited progress for women’s reproductive rights, autonomy and safety. According to polls, 70% of Chileans supported reforming the abortion law. The controversial bill has brought about dialogue, debate and media recognition of family planning policies in other socially conservative Latin American countries.
Abortion reform law
The abortion reform bill in Chile decriminalises abortion under three circumstances: risk to the life of a pregnant woman, rape or non-viable pregnancy. The law overturns the outright ban that dictator Pinochet enforced in 1989.
Women were forbidden to terminate a pregnancy that was likely to kill them, was a result of sexual assault, or if the foetus was highly unlikely to survive the pregnancy or birth. The strict legislation caused huge psychological and physical distress, a step backwards from the 1931 law that permitted ‘therapeutic’ abortion to save a woman’s health or life.
Clandestine, unregulated and often unsafe abortions continue to pose serious health risks to women. The reforms are a step towards giving women control over their own bodies and will help those seeking to terminate unplanned pregnancies under any of the permitted circumstances.
Opposition and support for the bill
Right-wing groups opposed the bill in Congress during the two-year-long debate, along with pro-life Catholic church members and Evangelists. With varying opinions on when life begins, religious, moral and scientific arguments were proposed. Congress ruled to remove legislation that killed women, forced them to carry an non-viable pregnancy to term or made them carry their rapist’s baby to term.
Chile had been criticised for being the only member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with an outright ban on abortion. Human rights groups and international law experts addressed congress during the debate, stating that the ban was an inefficient way to reduce the number of terminations in Chile, where approximately 35% of pregnancies are clandestinely terminated.
Human rights groups suggest that around 160,000 abortions per year take place in Chile, 64,000 of them involving girls under eighteen. There, unsafe abortion accounts for approximately 25% of maternal mortality (2004). José Miguel Vivanco, Director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch and Verónica Undurraga, Professor of constitutional law at Adolfo Ibáñez University told congress that “an absolute ban on abortion imposes an inhumane burden on women”.
Restrictions and limitations of the bill
The reform overturns the draconian blanket ban on abortion, but is very limited. Chile are unlikely to relax the narrow circumstances of the law further. The bill does not permit abortion if the pregnant person’s health is threatened, only if their life is at risk. Social and economic factors are not taken into consideration as grounds for termination – the bill is far from pro-choice.
Private hospitals can refuse to perform terminations on religious grounds, and doctors can abstain for personal reasons. This could restrict access to the procedure.
The abortion limit is 12 weeks gestation for pregnancies resulting from rape. This is extended to 14 weeks for under 14s, who must have permission from a parent or guardian.
Comparison with other Latin American countries
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the unsafe abortion mortality ratio is 10 times higher than in Europe. Women are dying, and poorer women are worse affected as they are often available to seek safe, higher quality care or travel abroad for legal abortions. Poorer women in northern Chile often cross the border to Peru to seek cheap abortions; often leading to medical complications as unsafe abortions are performed in clinics without medical licenses.
Abortion is prohibited under all circumstances in six Latin American countries: Nicaragua, Suriname, Haiti, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Those suspected of procuring an abortion in El Salvador can be charged with homicide and face up to 50 years in prison, even if the pregnancy results from rape. Critics of the blanket ban hope that El Salvador will follow Chile’s example and ease the complete ban. By contrast, Uruguay has the most liberal policy on abortion in Latin America. Termination of pregnancy has been permitted in all cases at up to 12 weeks since 2012.
As Bachelet tweeted, “We advance a basic right for our dignity”. The bill marks a step forward for human rights in Chile. However, the church and state continue to govern what women do with their reproductive organs and a huge stigma surrounding abortion remains. To make further progress, it is vital that the availability of contraception is improved and comprehensive sex education from a young age is made accessible in Latin America.