On March 17, the meeting of Chile’s House of Representatives was centered around the amendment of Chile’s abortion laws, which currently prohibit abortion in all cases. The amendment would include permitting abortion if the fetus is “unviable,” if a substantial risk to the life of the mother is present, and in cases of rape. The final vote stood at 66 representatives in favor of the amendment to 44 against.
Abortion in Chile was first abolished in 1875 by the penal code. However, in 1931, under the government of Chilean president Carlos Ibañez del Campo, the 1930 Sanitary Code of Chile allowed abortion in therapeutic cases (meaning in order to cure a health-related problem) with the approval of three medical professionals. The government of the center-left Christian Democratic Party and its president Eduardo Frei Montalva reformed the 1930 Sanitary Code of Chile by reducing the number of medical opinions necessary for approval of an abortion to two. That change was part of a larger set of healthcare reforms that also provided Chile with a family planning program that included sexual education and contraceptives, as well as mother-infant care programs. All these reforms changed in 1989 when outgoing dictator Augusto Pinochet added clause 119 to the Sanitary Code, prohibiting abortion under any circumstance.
Now, abortion is completely illegal in Chile regardless of the circumstances. The introduction of more leniency has been a recurring part of some Chilean platforms, including that of current President Michelle Bachelet when she ran for president in 2013. Both sides of the debate use controversial abortion stories to support their position. One particularly famous case had to do with an eleven year-old girl, “Belen,” who, after being raped by her mother’s partner, was told that she couldn’t get an abortion. The event led to a march of 5,000 protesters in the central city, 100 of whom ransacked the main Catholic Cathedral in downtown Santiago.
However, Chile remains a largely conservative Catholic country, where Sundays are kept sacred, divorce was only made legal in 2005, and contraceptives are still difficult to obtain. In 2015, El País reported that Chile’s Catholic Church asked for religious exemptions for its hospitals with regards to the availability of abortion.
A USA Today article noted three countries within Latin America, outside of Chile, that have complete restrictions on abortion: El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. 2014 estimates suggest that every year, roughly 160,000 women have an illegal abortion in Chile. Neighboring countries Perú, Argentina, and Bolivia all permit abortion in at least one or more circumstances, including to save the mother’s life, and, in the case of Perú and Bolivia, also to preserve physical health, but the realtime price of an abortion is high for women in the region. Women often face social and economic restrictions, as well as a lack of medical providers. The Guttmacher Institute estimated that 4.4 million abortions occur in Latin America, 95 percent of which are done without proper medical assistance or in unsanitary conditions often leading to complications.
While Chile’s bill has yet to pass through the Senate, given her platform, Michelle Bachelet is expected to sign it into law if it passes. However, as the subject remains controversial both locally and regionally, the debate is far from over.