A Crack in the World’s Most Restrictive Abortion Law

The Latin American country is one of only six in the world that forbids abortion even in cases of rape and incest—but a new bill could legalize the practice in extreme cases.

Earlier this month, Chile’s lower chamber voted in favor of legalizing abortion in cases of rape, incest, and fatal malformation to the fetus—marking what could be the beginning of repealing one of the strictest abortion laws in the world.

“This is historic. The chamber of deputies has brought down the last ideological wall of the dictatorship,” lower chamber President Marco Antonio Núñez said, referencing the law as a vestige of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, which was responsible for recriminalizing abortion 26 years ago.

Until Thursday, Chile was one of six countries that criminalized abortion in all cases, even rape and incest. Receiving or performing an abortion can land a woman or her doctor in jail for up to five years.

Nevertheless, Chile has one of the highest rates of abortion in Latin America—and consequently, one of the highest maternal mortality rates as well, with more than 33,000 women admitted to the hospital per year due to abortion-related causes. While an underground network of pro-choice feminists and doctors has sprung up to either provide the procedure in secret, or procure and trade Misoprostol (commonly known as the abortion pill) for women in need on the black market, poorer women frequently resort to inducing an abortion themselves, a time-honored—and dangerous—solution.

“Clandestine abortions are carried out in Chile, and will continue, with or without politicians or a law,” said Claudia Dides, the director of Miles Chile, a local non-governmental organization that advocates for women’s health.

“What we want is for abortions to be safe.”

Chile has not always had such restrictive laws when it comes to abortion. Abortion was first legalized—along with the right to vote in municipal elections—in 1931, for women whose lives were in danger from the pregnancy. However, it was once again criminalized in 1989, just before Pinochet left office.

“Women are obliged to have the child in all circumstances. It is part of the cross the God gives every human,” Jamie Gúzman, a close adviser of Pinochet, said in 1980, while advocating for criminalization.

“The mother must always have the child, even if this child is abnormal, undesired, the product of rape, or even if having the child will kill her.”

It is the Catholic Church hierarchy, left over from the dictatorship era, which has kept abortion criminalized—despite multiple polls indicating strong public support for decriminalization, particularly in extreme cases such as rape, incest, and potential health consequences for either the mother or the child. The first female president in Chile, President Michelle Bachelet, has consistently advocated for legalizing abortion in cases of rape, incest, and fatal malformation to the fetus since her electoral campaign, but has met with opposition from conservative factions.

“Chile has an important legal and public health tradition, that was interrupted arbitrarily in the last days of the dictatorship,” she said during an address, referring to the rigid law as a vestige of the Pinochet dictatorship.

“Twelve bills [to decriminalize abortion] have been tabled in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate since 1991.”

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The next step is for the bill to move on to the Senate, where advocates are hopeful that—despite the presence of conservative, Roman Catholic pro-life senators who are expected to put up a fight—the left-wing government majority will allow the proposal to progress more than previous proposals, and become a law and a reality for Chilean women.