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Decriminalizing Abortion in Chile
The years 2014 and 2015 will be remembered in Chile as a period of significant social and political transformations. Tax, education, and election reforms, as well as the civil union agreement for straight and gay couples, are clear examples of the vanishing of the most conservative legacies of the dictatorship. Still, when political debate focuses on abortion, various social actors carry the banner of opposition with arguments based on the most traditional religion, ethics, or morals.
Statistics show that a large number of illegal abortions are performed in Chile every year; while the Ministry of Health estimated more than 17,000 for 2012, experts believe that the actual amount is more than three times higher. In addition, women are faced with unequal access to safe abortions. High-income women can travel abroad to have the procedure done legally or are in contact with physicians who perform abortions privately and may charge more than USD 6,000. We should recall here that former Minister of Health Helia Molina discussed this situation in the media, and her decision to do so led the administration to ask for her resignation. On the other end, women who can neither afford the high cost of abortion in Chile nor travel abroad resort to dangerous, unsafe practices. These procedures are not performed by skilled professionals and hence pose a clear, significant risk to women's health and welfare.
Recently President Michelle Bachelet introduced a bill that would decriminalize abortion in the cases of rape, fetal malformation, and to save the life of the pregnant woman – a major step forward since Chile is one the few countries that currently prohibits the procedure in all circumstances. It is the last option that has sparked the greatest debate and conflict among conservative groups in the country. For instance, the president of Chile's Catholic University stated that the university's health facilities (the UC CHRISTUS healthcare network) would not perform abortions of any kind, and this response was endorsed by several private clinics nationwide.
Now, while conservative positions opposing abortion legislation seem to be in the forefront in the political sphere and the media, it is worth noting that most young people in Chile approve of legalizing abortion under certain conditions. According to a survey carried out by the Instituto de la Juventud (Youth Institute) (INJUV), 60% of Chilean youth are in favor of decriminalization on all the above-mentioned grounds, and 87% support it at least on one of those grounds. These results reflect young people's desire to participate in the debate. Moreover, the study revealed that they feel that the government's actions are not addressing their sexual and reproductive health needs, and that most of them are not satisfied with the quality of sex education in the schools. Such findings summarize young people's overall discontent with the national government's policy, actions, and omissions concerning sexual and reproductive health.
As a young member of APROFA, I believe that in order to promote and fulfill Chilean women's rights, the government must decriminalize abortion on the three grounds proposed in the bill. Yet I also believe that every action in favor of abortion must be strengthened by increased access to good-quality education on sexuality, reproductive health, and gender that promotes not only the appropriate use of contraception, but also respect for oneself and others.
Along with decriminalization, the government must also consider ensuring access to abortion care facilities in both the public and the private sectors with practitioners who are sensitive to this issue and high-quality equipment. The debate on abortion is closely intertwined with the debate on sex education. The legalization of abortion is a multidimensional issue, and therefore the health, education, and legal sectors must work together toward the promotion of the sexual and reproductive rights of women and of the country's population in general.