Chile: Abortion Bill Still Restricts Right To Decide About Our Bodies
| By Gabby De Cicco
In Chile, abortion was forbidden on all grounds in 1989, only a year before dictator Augusto Pinochet's government ended. Since the democratic comeback in 1990, several Abortion Bills have been presented, never discussed then later filed away, but this is the first Bill submitted by a President. And, as our interviewees have said, this is also the first Bill that sets off a genuine discussion in society and has a chance to finally be voted on.
A Bill with a restricted scope
In the absence of official data, estimates (by government and women's movement) are that between 100,000 and 140,000 clandestine abortions are performed in Chile every year.
In the case of girls younger than 14 years who have been raped, the Bill extends the deadline to make a decision from the usual 12 weeks to 18. It also compels doctors to adhere to patient confidentiality, while also allowing for conscientious objections, in which case, the patient must be referred a non-objecting professional”.
Feminist activists, who were not consulted in the drafting of this Bill, still believe that submitting an Abortion Bill accounts for progress, but have also been critical, pointing out that the Bill does not ensure women's right to freely decide when to have an abortion, specifically on grounds other than the three recognized by the Bill.
Natalia Flores, Executive Director of Observatorio de Género y Equidad [Gender and Equity Watch], who is currently working at the Ministry of Health explains, "The presidential Bill was written and conceptualized in the context of a negotiation between the different parties making up the ruling coalition 'Nueva Mayoría' [New Majority]", based on their positions on abortion. It is worth mentioning that the Christian Democratic Party is part of that coalition and which, in more than two decades of democratic rule, have repeatedly refused to be part of any initiative to change the current complete criminalization of abortion in Chile. This Bill, as it is, clearly does not guarantee the right to decide for Chilean women, as it will only affect approximately 3% of abortions currently performed in Chile. But as we understand, the Bill restricted itself to those three grounds so that an agreement within the ruling coalition could be reached."
But, in a country where more than 70% of the population is Catholic, heated debates are expected in Parliament. Already, within the Nueva Mayoría, beyond the negotiations mentioned by Flores, some MPs have expressed their refusal to support the Bill.
The reality of abortion is broader and more complex
Siomara Molina is a coordinator for the campaign “Derecho a decidir = Personas libres” [Right to decide = Free individuals], launched in 2014 outside the capital, in the city of Valdivia, Southern Chile, this campaign created in the geographical margins is now represented in nine other regional capitals across Chile. Its goal is to position and make visible the issue of abortion, as well as to raise Chilean society's awareness about it.
Based on unofficial estimates, Molina agrees with Flores on the fact that this Bill will only address approximately 3% of all abortions being performed in Chile. She says, "This means that 97% of the Chilean women who have an abortion will continue to do so in a clandestine and unsafe way, risking being criminalized". Those involved in this campaign acknowledge that the project implies recognition of women's rights but they also point out, "The reality of abortion is far broader than those three grounds, so the Bill is insufficient".
Molina adds, "Of course we expect that if a woman or a girl gets pregnant after being raped she will have the possibility to undergo an abortion in optimal conditions, but reality is more complex. The decision to have an abortion or not is a decision each woman makes according to the situation she is in when getting pregnant. And it is related to your economic, family, work, love status; it has to do with your life project. Women decide to have or not have an abortion regardless of what the law tells us. We have the right to decide about our bodies and our lives, they are not the bodies and lives of those who nowadays are deciding on our behalf. They are not the Church’s, or the doctors' or the judicial system's bodies. So it should be our right, but today in Chile that right is being completely violated."
Growing awareness in Chilean society
Molina explains that one of the purposes of the Campaign “Derecho a decidir = Personas libres”, is to "raise awareness in Chilean society and particularly in organized social movements about how women's rights are being violated in the issue of abortion, what clandestine abortion means, what the reality of women who are having abortions in Chile is. And we think this demand should be shared by the entire Chilean society, rather than being voiced only by feminists."
What do women in general think? How have they welcomed, and what do they think about the Bill? Since 2004, “Corporación Humanas” has been conducting the survey "Women's perceptions about their situation and conditions of life in Chile". In its tenth edition, the findings of which were released in December 2014, they asked: "How much do you agree with abortion being legal in each of the following situations...?" At the national level, between 70 to 80% supported therapeutic abortion.
Carolina Carrera, President of Corporación Humanas explains that in recent years support for abortion in cases of rape has also grown. She says, "This is because in recent years the media has covered cases of 11 or 12 year old girls, raped by step-fathers, fathers or other relatives, who had no possibility to stop their pregnancies,.I think that has led public opinion to have a more positive view of abortion in those cases."
But according to the survey support plunges to 20% for the option of women being able to decide to have an abortion in any circumstance. Carrera thinks this correlates, for a country where abortion is forbidden and criminalized; and where "Catholic fundamentalism is very strong, and there are well-resourced so-called Pro-Life campaigns. The result is that in the survey women give politically correct answers only to those questions including the most extreme cases, that are those contemplated in the Bill".
More needs to be done to advance sexual and reproductive rights
Molina and Carrera agree about some of the pending sexual rights and reproductive health issues, such as sexuality education, providing emergency contraception, and the lack of a systematic delivery of contraceptives to young women and men in medical facilities. Molina says that, just like abortion, "Any sexuality-related issue is treated as a taboo in Chile." For Carrera, "A greater level of knowledge seems to raise fears; if people knew more, there would be more support for women's right to decide over our bodies".
The greatest pending issue in Chile for Natalia Flores is "Legalizing abortion in all circumstances, and this comes together with the need for a broader law dealing, not only specifically with sexual and reproductive rights, but also taking into account the specificities of the different ways in which we are women. A legal framework guaranteeing voluntary motherhood, both for those women who decide not to have children and for those who wishing it, but face biological constraints. Lesbian mothers’ issues or in-vitro fertilization for single women or lesbians are also not regulated. A serious pending issue is everything related to transgender women, from respecting their dignity in public healthcare to sex-change surgeries."
Carolina Carrera echoes the thoughts of many other feminists across the region, in many countries where similar struggles are being fought: "If body is the territory on which rights are exercised, for as long as we have no right to decide about our own bodies, what other rights are you talking to us about?"
Pinochet was Chile's de facto president from 1973 to 1990.
Nueva Mayoría is made up by several parties including the Socialist, Christian Democratic, Communist, Partido por la Democracia, Partido Izquierda Ciudadana, Partido Movimiento Amplio Socialista and Partido Radical Socialdemócrata.