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Abortion in Chile: An Overview
Twenty-five years ago, Chile enacted the most restrictive ban against abortion in the world. It is one of six countries that prohibit abortion without exception—even when a pregnancy is the result of sexual violence or endangers a woman's life. Even when the life that’s endangered is that of an 11-year-old girl who became pregnant when she was raped.
Despite the country’s strict laws, 70,000 women risk their lives each year to have an illegal abortion in Chile. It has one of the highest rates of abortion in Latin America. Far from preventing the procedure, the criminalization of abortion causes women to turn to inadequately trained practitioners who employ unsafe techniques or attempt to self-induce abortion using dangerous methods. The United Nations estimates that up to 40% of maternal deaths in Chile are caused by complications due to unsafe abortions.
Setting facts aside, the Catholic Church opposes sexual and reproductive rights at the expense of women's lives. Chilean women are consistently denied access to basic information about their sexual and reproductive health, and many want—but do not have access to—modern contraceptives.
Emergency contraception, which can prevent pregnancy when a woman is raped, is legal in Chile, but pharmacists often refuse to sell it on moral grounds. The climate of social conservatism simmering at the core of Chilean society denies women the most fundamental choice: what happens to their bodies. It doesn’t allow them to decide how they want to live their lives.
“Comprehensive sexuality education and access to contraception empowers women to forge their own futures,” says Regional Director Carmen Barroso. “We know that women who can control their bodies are healthier, get more education, and improve economies.”
There has been a surge of support recently for the decriminalization of abortion in Chile. President Michelle Bachelet, who won last year’s election in a landslide victory, pledged on the campaign trail to lift the ban on abortion.
“We want to push for the decriminalization of abortion in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, rape, or when the fetus has no chance of surviving after birth,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Last week the Ministry of Health issued a document instructing health professionals to avoid soliciting confessions from women who seek care following an abortion. They took action after a doctor reported a seventeen-year-old girl to the police, saying the report violates patient confidentiality. The girl now faces up to five years in prison.
Bachelet’s administration is currently drafting a proposal that would allow abortion in some circumstances. This effort has already received public support from health workers and women’s rights organizations. And recently, the Chilean Parliament announced it would begin discussions on the issue in July. In response, many conservative politicians and Catholic leaders have vowed to fight to keep the ban in place.
Although change to the abortion law in Chile may be imminent, the road to get there will not be easy.
Yvonne Ivanescu is a freelance journalist who blogs at Under the Yew Tree. She has a Master of International Development and Globalization from University of Ottawa, where she wrote her thesis on abortion rights in Chile.