SANTIAGO, Chile – Chile’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, approved President Michelle Bachelet’s proposal for abortion reform that would de-criminalize the procedure in cases of danger to the life of the mother, fetal viability (likelihood of the baby’s survival after birth) and rape.
Thus, the first concrete step was taken in changing Chile’s status as one of only six countries in which abortion is completely outlawed as now the “Law to Decriminalize Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy in Case of the Three Causes” goes before a second vote in the Senate, the upper house of Congress.
Bachelet signed off on the delivery of the proposal, put together by Bachelet’s center-left New Majority coalition, to Congress from the Montt Varas Hall of the Moneda Palace, the seat of government, in early February of 2015.
Prior to the finalization and presentation of the proposal, there was a months-long discussion and preliminary vote held just to see if the proposal would be heard and voted upon in the houses of Congress later, showing how long and difficult the process has been (and continues to be).
As mentioned, the causes that would justify an abortion under the new law would be danger to the life of the mother, fetal viability (likelihood of the baby’s survival after birth) and in cases of rape.
The law would apply to women over the age of 18, minors between ages 14 to 17 with parental consent and those younger than 14 with authorization from a legal representative or civil court. Furthermore, unless it is an emergency, cases of danger to the mother or fetus would need a second medical diagnosis.
In cases of rape, a medical diagnosis will be carried out to determine if the period of gestation has exceeded the limit of 12 weeks. In the case of a minor less than 14 years old, the limit is extended to 14 weeks without the need for the lengthy medical diagnosis.
The law, if passed, will apply to medical centers both public and private. If a doctor objects to carrying out the procedure, they can do so, but cannot reject to carrying it out if it is considered very urgent and no other physicians are present. Clinics and hospitals, as institutions, cannot invoke the same form of conscientious objection like doctors.
“Chile is one of the very few nations in the entire world where abortion in any instance, no matter how vital it may be, is completely criminalized. However, Chile is a mature and democratic society, and a mature and democratic society need not fear any kind of debate on this topic, and I think that this is the moment to have this debate,” said Bachelet in May of last year. The other nations Bachelet was referring to are the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Malta, Nicaragua and the Vatican.
“In a society where the women are free and full-fledged citizens, neither the State or any individual can force them to make a decision against their will and wish to be a mother,” Bachelet said. “In the same vein, when a woman does not wish to continue with a pregnancy for any of the reasons mentioned in our proposal, the State must provide alternatives for the woman’s rights, the woman’s dignity and the protection of her life.
“The proposal that we presented is rooted in the commitments Chile promised to make when we joined the international community, including the international law on human rights, and we cannot continue shunning this obligation,” said Bachelet, who was the first head of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (known simply as UN Women), a section of the UN Development Group that seeks to further the rights and empowerment of women worldwide.
Claudia Pascual, the Minister of the National Service for Women (SERNAM), welcomed the news of the bill’s approval by the Chamber of Deputies. “This project gives women vital options while not imposing political positions upon anyone. We have worked hard for this,” Pascual said.
The bill, which is supported by over 70 percent of Chileans according to contemporary polls, was approved by the Chamber of Deputies by a count of 66 in favor and 44 against with 10 abstentions.
The proposal was the result of compromise within the New Majority after one of its member parties, the socially conservative Christian Democrats, showed their resistance to the reform and asked that each of the three cases be voted upon instead of the three as a whole. In fact, Bachelet herself called it a “soft reform” bill in comparison to what was originally planned.
Despite the fact that the bill offers no legal leeway for the future full legalization of abortion and strictly limits abortion in only the three cases, the conservative opposition has continued to denounce the proposal.
Indeed, the two major right-wing opposition parties, the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and National Renewal (RN), said just after the Chamber of Deputies vote that they will appeal to the Constitutional Court to have the initiative stopped.
Gustavo Hasbún, a Deputy on behalf of the UDI, said that the proposal seems “very permissive and so general that it openly serves as the prelude to the eventual legalization of eugenics.” His party colleague, Enrique Van Rysselberge, said that “there are people in Chile today who think that human life can and should be limited and controlled, the same way Hitler and Stalin thought.”
René Manuel García of the RN went a step further and compared the darkest period in Chile’s history to the proposal: “We can say that the military government or dictatorship, whatever you want to call it, killed many people and among them were many greats from public and civic life. You want to kill people before they are even born so what is the difference between these two crimes?”
The Chilean National Healthcode’s Article 119 says that “no action whose purpose is to initiate or cause an abortion may be executed.” This part of Article 119 is a holdover, as with many other aspects of life in Chile, of the Augusto Pinochet right-wing military dictatorship (1973-1990) referenced by García. Prior to the coup that brought him to power, abortion for medical reasons was allowed since 1931.
Pinochet, the military general who overthrew the democratically-elected Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 via a violent coup, modified Article 119 in September of 1989, just months before the return of democracy. Ironically, he did so to “protect the dignity of life” in line with his “conservative and Catholic values” but simultaneously oversaw 17 years of systematic and state-sponsored human rights violations like kidnapping, torture, rape, forced disappearances and murder that affected over 40,000 people in his country.
Since the return of democracy in 1991, there have been 12 initiatives to reform abortion legislation that have passed through Chilean Congress. None of those attempts were successful but Bachelet’s initiative has made more progress than any of the past attempts at abortion reform.
The legislation currently on the books has led many women down the dark road of clandestine abortions. For those that are caught in the act, they are punished; in 2012, 221 Chilean women were given some sort of criminal sentence for getting an abortion or aiding in an abortion. It gets worse: it is estimated that over 30,000 women are admitted to hospital each year in Chile due to complications from illegal abortions, but the number of those who undergo abortion procedures in total are much higher.
According to a study published by the private Diego Portales University (UDP), an estimated 70,000 abortions are induced in the country while Dr. Ramiro Molina, a professor specializing in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the public University of Chile, says that the number is over 140,000. This means that, while some abortions are carried out successfully with modern means in modern spaces, most abortions come at high costs and high risks.
Women living in poor and remote regions are at high risk given the tools and methods used to carry out the abortion. Wealthy women, meanwhile, travel to neighboring Argentina or Uruguay, and even as far as Cuba to have the abortion. Some women have the procedure carried out domestically and safely (but illegally) by a licensed doctor in Chile for, according to the UDP study, about $7,000. The same study showed instances of further monetary extortion by these doctors and in some cases, even demands of sex.
The experts warn that all of these factors make Chilean women afraid and in ways, prisoners of their own uterus; they can either risk their finances, freedom, health and lives or give birth to an unplanned and unwanted child that will, for those reasons, likely grow up in a situation that destabilizes both their life and the life of the mother.