Chile’s feminists push to decriminalize abortion

By Carole Concha Bell

Abortion campaigners in Chile have been heartened by the recent legalization of abortion in neighboring Argentina and are currently presenting a bill for the decriminalization of abortion. But with a pro-life government and Senate inherited from the Pinochet regime (1973-90) any amendments to the existing law will be hard won.

Chile has one of the world’s most draconian abortion laws in the world. Dictator General Augusto Pinochet’s last act before leaving office in 1989 was to completely outlaw abortion and make it a punishable crime. It was not until 2017 that President Michelle Bachelet’s administration was able to amend the law to allow abortion in extreme cases. But women’s reproductive rights have come under attack again by far-right President Sebastian Pinera’s cabinet. In 2019 Pinera introduced an amendment allowing entire (private) hospitals and medical professionals to object to the procedure on grounds of “conscience.”

“We are not certain our bill will be successful, ” notes Andrea Alvarez Carimoney, a researcher for the School of Public Health at the University of Chile and a member of the Mesa de Accion for abortion in Chile (a pro-abortion campaign group.) “It’s not even guaranteed that it will be approved in the Women’s Commission  [the Chilean Government’s Women’s and Equalities Office] because so far, their voting history has not been favourable. Centrist MPs are not engaged with this campaign thus the vote seems adverse.” She worries that the vote will empower the conservatives.

At present there are three grounds in which a woman can access abortion: If there is risk to the life of the mother, if the foetus is unviable. or the pregnancy resulted from rape and no more than 12 weeks of gestation have passed (14 weeks in the case of a girl under 14 years of age.) Yet this can still be challenged by medical institutions or individual doctors on religious grounds.

Therapeutic abortion was legalized in Chile in 1931 thanks to the efforts of feminist campaigners and sympathetic medical professionals. But the military regime that forcefully seized power in 1973, backed by the USA and headed up by dictator Pinochet who professed to be a devout Catholic, outlawed all abortion even if mother and baby were at risk.

“Today’s constitution was inherited from the dictatorship and has remain unchanged since then,” Alvarez explains. “The main ideologue of the regime, Jaime Guzman, pushed for the fetus to have rights. The right to conscientious objection has gathered strength under Sebastian Piñera’s administration. This effectively means that practitioners in the private sector can object to an abortion citing religious beliefs.”

The long shadow of the dictatorship. 

The Pinochet constitution has been binding, not only by maintaining a  neoliberal ideology marked by the loss of a nation state’s decision-making capacity, but also by calcifiying laws restricting women’s reproductive rights. Despite a sea change in societal attitudes, demonstrated by growing public support for Chile’s burgeoning feminist movement, Chilean women can currently face up to five years imprisonment for aborting.

A pro-abortion feminist wearing the popular green bandana that symbolizes women’s rights, resistance, and equality. Photo: Daniel Espinoza Guzman

A deteriorating economic situation in Chile –at least for the majority of the population — has caused widespread protests and charges against the neoliberal Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ( OECD), an intergovernmental economic organization of which Chile is a member. The OECD purportedly aims at stimulating economic progress and world trade, but its feminist critics claim it is rife with double standards. Of the OECD’s 37 members, Chile remains the most unequal country, with an income gap 65% wider than the OECD average. Women, of course, are the most affected, earning less than men and suffering from Chile’s harsh anti-abortion law,  which affects their access to the labor market by encouraging them to stay home to care for their children.

Wealthy Chilean women are able to sidestep the anti-abortion law by going abroad or paying a willing surgeon at an exclusive clinic. Health Minister Helia Molina pointed this out publicly in 2015, telling the Chilean newspaper La Segunda “In all upper-class clinics, many conservative families have had their daughters abort. People with money do not need laws, because they have the resources.” She was promptly sacked from her post by then-President Michelle Bachelet.

The rise of the Green Tide

The political role of women has been instrumental in resisting tyranny and shaping societal changes in Chile. Over the last few years, the feminist movement has grown exponentially. It has been aided by the global success of the anti-rape-and-patriarchy anthem,  “A rapist in your path,” sung by Chile’s popular feminist performers,   ‘Las Tesis’, who are not shy about criticizing the tyrannical role of male-dominated institutions. Mass feminist protests calling for abortion rights and equality have attracted up to a million demonstrators.

Feminist protesters at a large pro-abortion rally in Chile in July 2020. Photo: Daniel Espinoza Guzman

“When the network of Latin American feminists launched the green bandana campaign [wearing green handkerchiefs that have come to symbolize women’s rights, resistance and equality] we took it onboard in Chile,” says Alvarez. “We have seen more and more women adopting this symbol, on the streets and public transportion. It’s gaining strength particularly on key dates like the 8th of March , International Women’s Day, and has also featured strongly at the social uprising of 2019,” Alvarez adds. “We have staged various events like ‘panuelazos’ (wearing the green bandanas) to give greater visibility to abortion issues, not just here but across Latin America, each time gaining more support. We are currently developing a bill for access to safe and free abortion. A coalition of groups including La Mesa along with other feminists are working with cross-party left-wing MPs to present this bill to parliament.”  Although the new bill is a step in the right direction, it is limited to the decriminalization of abortion.

Chile’s Minister of Social Development and Family, Karla Rubilar, communicated the government’s orthodox sentiment toward the bill when she declared, “the government is against free abortion, where there is no reason other than the decision of the woman to be able to interrupt her pregnancy…. The government [view] on this matter is clear.” Opposition to any form of relaxation of the draconian abortion bill is not only expressed by the current hard-line government, but secular groups in society that continue to push a pro-life ideology through think-tanks such as IdeaPais por Ella (For Her) that focus their campaigns on university campuses. Other International organizsations such as Human Life International (HLI), a U.S. non-profit based in Front Royal, Virginia) have spent decades discreetly funding anti-abortion campaigns in Chile, along with other Latin American and Caribbean countries.

The biggest obstacle to expanding women’s rights, however, comes from President Sebastian Pinera himself. The billionaire oligarch shocked the world in 2013 when he praised as “brave and mature” a pregnant 11-year-old rape victim who said she was happy to have the baby.

Despite fierce opposition in the Senate and pressure from foreign-funded Pro Life think tanks and organizations posing as family planning NGO’s, legislation needs to catch up with reality. Maite Orsini from the left-leaning party, Revolucion Democratic  agrees. “Abortions exist and will continue to exist. We must stop persecuting teenagers and women who don’t have the funds to pay for the procedure in private clinics,” she told the Chilean media.

Carole Concha Bell is an Anglo-Chilean free-lance writer who focuses on Latin America and indigenous rights.