The figures are striking to an outsider, but wearily depressing to many Chileans. Every year in Chile, an average of 16,510 pregnant women are hospitalized before 22 weeks, due to complications that put the health of the mother, fetus or both at risk. About 500 pregnant Chilean women die annually, while girls younger than 12 years old are forced to carry pregnancies to full term.
Abortion, legalized in Chile in 1931 in certain cases, was banned outright in the final months of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1989, when the outgoing government ruled it “no longer justifiable,” given advances in modern medicine. Currently, women can face up to 5 years in jail for seeking an abortion, while those helping the procedure can be jailed for up to 3 years.
And perhaps the most dispiriting statistic of all: since 1991, some 15 bills concerning abortion have been filed, most of which called for penalties to be increased — even proposing monuments to the “innocent victims of abortion” and successfully creating an official “Day of Those About to be Born.”
Bills aiming to decriminalize the procedure, however, have stalled in Chile’s labyrinthine congressional system, held up by commissions or voted down by a legislature reflective of the grip that Roman Catholicism still holds over Chile, one of seven countries in the world, and five in the Americas, where abortion is still illegal under any circumstances. Other countries on that list include Nicaragua, Honduras and Haiti.
Changes in the air
But an announcement by President Michelle Bachelet on Saturday, January 31, might be the beginning of change. In a televised address from the Moneda palace, Bachelet — reelected in October 2013 on a program of sweeping social reform — unveiled a new bill proposing decriminalization in cases of rape, non-viability or risk to the mother’s health.
Under the new proposals, women would be allowed to interrupt their pregnancy up until the 12th week under those circumstances, with the legal time period extended to 18 weeks for girls under 14.
“It’s a difficult situation, that we must confront as a mature nation. We cherish life, and noone wants to interrupt it, a mother less than anyone,” said Bachelet in her address. “But when her life is at risk, or the life she’s bearing is unviable, or the fruit of sexual violence, the ethical principles, rights and human criteria in play are put in tension.”
“A decision needs to be made, and we can’t avoid it by obliging women to face alone the heavy consequences of not being able to decide due to a law, because we damage her dignity, prolong her suffering and risk her life,” she added.
As Bachelet noted, decriminalization has failed to prevent dangerous back-door abortions from taking place. As of August 2014, the United Nations put the annual number of illegal abortions in Chile at 150,000, while local sources suggest that 20,000 or fewer take place each year.
Yet this open secret — and the fact that wealthy Chileans can benefit from discreet and safer procedures, while their less well-off counterparts are left to depend on riskier options — remains politically charged. Former Health Minister Helia Molina was forced to step down after controversy erupted in December when she told an interviewer that “in every cuica (high-class) clinic in the country, many of the most conservative families have made their daughters have abortions.”
Preparing for a fight
The new bill will face opposition on multiple fronts — not least from within Bachelet’s own coalition government. Representatives from the Christian Democrat (DC) party have already signaled that they will seek to block one or more of the three conditions envisioned, and the DC’s chief in the Chamber of Deputies, Matías Walker, has called for the three conditions to be voted on separately.
“These projects never come out of Congress looking like how they came in,” he said on Thursday.
The Catholic Church has staunchly opposed any moves towards legalization, and several clinics — including those attached to Santiago’s prestigious Universidad Católica — have said that they won’t perform the procedure, mirroring those pharmacies that still refuse to stock birth control methods.
Outside of traditional bastions of conservatism, a growing evangelical movement is fiercely opposed to decriminalization of abortion, as well as the recent creation of civil partnerships for same-sex and heterosexual couples.
Yet on abortion, as with same-sex marriage, it seems like Chile’s political and religious leaders lag behind the society they claim to represent. Survey data suggests that a majority of Chileans support abortion under the circumstances outlined in the bill.
As Bachelet stated, Chile once boasted a tradition of progressive health policy that was harshly interrupted by the 1973-1990 dictatorship. Perhaps abortion will soon be another area — along with electoral reform, human rights and marriage equality — where individual Chileans can take back those freedoms denied them, or stolen, by the state.