Women and feminists are celebrating in Chile after the recent landmark approval of a law to decriminalize abortion in three limited but significant cases. But despite the important progress catapulting the South American country out of its outlier status as one of very few countries with total bans on abortion, reproductive rights movements are remaining vigilant, acutely aware that the upcoming elections will determine if and how the legislation is implemented.
“Without a doubt the recently approved law represents a breakthrough in reproductive and sexual rights,” said Claudia Dides, director of Miles Chile, a sexual and reproductive rights organization that gave momentum to the push for the new law. “We have stopped being part of those retrograde countries where the influence of the church and de facto powers continue determining what a woman can and cannot do.”
She added that the move marks “a step toward equality for Chilean women and children.”
After a lengthy and often tense years-long debate, Chile’s Congress voted in early August to legalize abortion in three specific cases: when the woman’s life is at risk, the pregnancy is the result of rape, or the fetus is not going to survive. The Constitutional Court weighed in weeks later to give the go-ahead to the new law.
Dr. Lidia Casas, director of the Human Rights Center of the Diego Portales University, said that the law is only a small step in a much larger fight for complete legalization of abortion, but nevertheless significant.
“Giving birth in contexts like those stipulated in the law constitute cruel, inhumane treatment of women. It’s a more social, cultural, and legal form of violence,” Casas argued. “Although the women who benefit from this law will be few, it is a momentous event because it shows the growing cultural change on the right to choose maternity.”
Reproductive rights organizations and epidemiologists estimate that despite the legal and health risks of underground procedures, women seek 60,000 to 70,000 illegal abortions every year in Chile. Other estimates put the number as high as 100,000 or more, underlining the well-documented fact that outlawing abortion doesn’t prevent women from ending pregnancies, but rather drives them to resort to clandestine and often unsafe conditions.
Casas added that the challenge now that the law is approved will be ensuring that effective mechanisms are in place in the health system to allow women to exercise their right to choose “according to their own convictions” to fulfill the legislation’s purpose of protecting women.
Dides agreed that among other tasks at hand in continuing to advance sexual and reproductive rights, monitoring the implementation of the new abortion law will be key.
Although therapeutic abortion was legal for the better part of the 20th century in Chile, the practice was strictly outlawed in 1989 under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The ban was one of the many conservative legacies of one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history. It criminalized both women seeking abortions and the health professionals that provided them with up to five years in jail, though in recent years few of the dozens of cases investigated resulted in convictions or sentences.
Nevertheless, the legislation meant that there was always the risk of a shift toward harsher criminalization.
Chile was the last country in South America to overturn a total abortion ban. Pro-choice advocates hope its move to adopt a public health approach to the issue and bring its policy in line with international standards will provide an example to follow to the handful of countries – El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Malta, and Suriname – that still outlaw and punish abortion.
Sara García, an abortion rights activist in El Salvador, where feminists are pushing for the legalization of abortion in cases of rape, statutory rape, threat to a woman’s life, and inviability of the fetus, said that Chile’s progress gives the movement hope and shows that change is possible even in a conservative, sexist society where gender violence is a daily reality.
“It is necessary for the Salvadoran state see what happened in Chile where despite political, ideological, and party differences, there was a consensus and parties put women and women’s lives at the center,” García said. “This is an experience our country should learn from.”
“The Chilean right in general is very conservative and has an agenda on these matters that reflects what the church says and orders.”
In Chile, the campaign to push for the legalization in three cases kicked off in 2013 with a proposal in Congress supported at the time by just 15 lawmakers, Dides explained. The movement won a major breakthrough when the government of President Michelle Bachelet, elected for a second term beginning in 2014, adopted the proposal as part of its agenda and introduced a bill in Congress in January 2015.
The move showed Bachelet’s political will to champion the issue and launched a more than two-year, often fraught debate that pitted government allies against conservatives.
Casas said she doubts that the fact that the president is a woman had anything to do with the move to finally decriminalize abortion in specific circumstances, but rather the commitment of Bachelet’s center-left New Majority alliance to prioritizing the proposal in recent years.
“In the political world it is easy to let issues fall of the political agenda because of conflictive matters cause divisions and internal crisis,” she said. “The president maintained her agenda.”
Despite the victory, however, activists remain vigilant. The crucial hurdle of putting the new law into practice has yet to be overcome, while the risk of a conservative rollback looms with an election on the horizon.
Presidential front-runner Sebastián Piñera, a businessman and politician listed on Forbes’ The World’s Billionaires, announced at the end of August after the Constitutional Court gave the green light to the new abortion rules that, if elected, his government would “carefully revise” the law. In typical anti-choice rhetoric, he claimed that the term “therapeutic abortion” is misleading because “therapy means saving and abortion means killing.”
As president from 2010 to 2014 between Bachelet’s two terms in office, Piñera was staunchly opposed to easing restrictions on abortion, vowing in 2011 to veto any law passed in Congress allowing therapeutic abortion. With a Piñera government in Santiago again, the public health approach to abortion would come under attack.
“The Chilean right in general is very conservative and has an agenda on these matters that reflects what the church says and orders,” Dides explained. “In general they don’t separate the state from the church remain linked to a fundamentalist agenda on these issues.”
Casas agreed that the debate on easing the abortion ban may not yet be over.
“It is an issue that will be back on the parliamentary of presidential agenda to the extent that the right-wing candidate or candidates propose to repeal the law or make changes to its regulations, even though the regulations are not even known yet,” she said.
A recent CERC-MORI poll projected a lead for Piñera with 44 percent of the vote for in the first round presidential election on Nov. 19 with a wide margin over his closest contenders Alejandro Guillier, representing Bachelet’s New Majority coalition, at 30 percent and Beatriz Sánchez, of the Broad Front, at 11 percent.
If no candidate secures an absolute majority in the first round, the two top presidential hopefuls will face off in a runoff on Dec. 17. A CEP poll released Sept. 1 predicted a win for Piñera in runoff scenarios facing either Guillier or Sánchez.
Regardless of the election’s outcome, Dides argued that the path ahead will be marked by the challenges posed by the difficult relationship between the state and civil society and a democracy with many “debts” to society.
“This is without a doubt one of the great challenges (we face) that has to do with a Constitution that was imposed amid a military dictatorship that has only undergone cosmetic changes in recent years,” she said. Some social movements have long called for a national Constituent Assembly to overhaul the dictatorship-era document. Bachelet’s government launched a campaign in 2015 to propose rewriting the 1980 Constitution, but there is still no consensus on the process by which it will be drafted and approved.
In that sense, easing the abortion ban is just the tip of the iceberg in deepening human rights and democracy and Chile. Even in the realm of sexual and reproductive rights, there remains much work to be done.
“There are many steps to follow the first of which is monitoring the implementation of the (abortion) law,” said Dides, which she said must be paired with “supporting the gender identity law, marriage equality, and championing a new rights agenda in line with the deficits the country has in terms of sexual and reproductive rights.”
Locking in the votes to legalize abortion in three specific circumstances was an important first step, but there are many more ahead.
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