“It’s important that you find a long and steep set of stairs,” a young, brunette woman says in Spanish to a hand-held camera. She walks up steps of an anonymous building. “Make sure there’s no security cameras, so no one can see you.”
She continues walking.
“You must be alone. Only one person should know your whereabouts, in case you end up unconscious.”
She stops when she reaches a high point.
“Don’t look down because you could back out,” she says, holding the camera up to take a look at the flight of steps behind her.
“Close your eyes.”
“And let yourself fall.”
She tumbles backward down the stairs, her purple flowered dress smothering the camera lens.
The amateur quality of the video—like so many YouTube tutorials—leaves the viewer breathless, queasy, and entirely forgetful that it’s part of a dramatic advertising campaign taking Chile by storm.
In the three tutorial videos, a curly-haired woman throws herself in front of traffic. A bubbly blonde saws off the heel of her stilettos and trips on a fire hydrant. The woman in the purple dress falls down a flight of stairs. All in the hope of ending their pregnancies in the only way legally available in Chile.
“In Chile an accidental abortion is the only kind of abortion that is not considered a crime,” the video displays in bold type. The satirical videos are part of a campaign launched last month called Abortion Tutorials. It was conceived for the Miles Organization, a reproductive rights NGO, by advertising agency Grey Chile. The groups are hoping the Chilean government will be shamed into reforming what is the strictest abortion law in the world.
Chile, along with six other countries, bans women from getting in abortion under any circumstances, and doing so illegally is punishable by five years in prison.
“For me, it’s a great way to show how a girl could be in such desperation and will have these crazy ideas like throwing herself from the stairs or in front of the highway,” says Leslie Nicholls, the staff psychologist at the Miles Organization. “We’ve seen that. That’s very common in those cases.”
Because of the legal restrictions woman face in Chile, the theory of doing an accidental-on-purpose abortion is common knowledge. Before the bulk of information sharing moved online, midwives shared tips for do-it-yourself abortions privately and patients communicated with their doctors in code words.
“Today, the Internet is the way that women are finding information on experimental drugs, dangerous blows or any other way to finish their pregnancy,” writes Carles Puig, the creative director of Grey Chile, in an email. So he decided to plant the campaign online and watch it sprout. Sprout it did—the videos have raked in a collective 1.5 million views after two weeks online.
The dramatizations struck a chord. “Sadly, listening to several comments of women here, the reality is much bigger and worst that the fiction,” Puig says.
According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 35 percent of pregnancies end in abortion in Chile. The total number of procedures is projected at around 160,000 per year by the Guttmacher Institute. But official numbers only show an average of 33,000 abortions per year performed in hospitals, and an estimated half of these are women who had attempted to abort the pregnancy themselves.
”So [the hospitals] say, ‘It’s OK, we just cleaned her up, but we didn’t practice the abortion,’” Nicholls says of the numbers. “But in most cases they did.” This extra help she’s referencing depends on a doctor’s willingness and the amount of money that may be in play. “Probably the first or second will refuse to attend you and maybe the third or fourth will agree. It's not just a rights problem, but an equality problem too,” says Nicholls.
The number of prosecutions is surprisingly low. From 2011 to 2012, 310 cases were investigated and tried, according to the Reproductive Health Matters Journal.
“We don’t have 33,000 people in jail every year, so that’s at least curious,” Nicholls says, referring to the number of abortions performed in hospitals. The low rate is a worrying depiction of reproductive health in Chile. “So we know, for people in Chile, if you have money or contacts with doctors, you can get the procedure with sanitary conditions. But if you don’t have money or contacts you have to ask for an illegal procedure that can put you in severe health risk.”
Nicholls counsels patients grappling with an unwanted or untenable pregnancy, and says none have actually tried performing an accidental abortion. But some of her patients are carrying babies with fatal deformities, and must carry it to term even though they know it won’t survive birth. The videos are styled as a provocative how-to, taking a cue from the dramatic campaigns against speeding and drunk driving, but Nicholls says she’s certain the satire is understood and won’t inspire women to fling themselves in front of traffic.
One of her patients told Nicholls that her doctor recommended she climb stairs every day so she would lose the baby. If that failed, he said, pray to God to take its life. “Those are the kind of solutions they will give you, so [this campaign] could look like a crazy idea [to you] but it's still very common here,” Nicholls says. Some of her patients become deeply depressed, and even suicidal.
The videos have been trending on Chilean Twitter, and making the rounds on television. “[T]hat is the debate that we want, the one that massively explode from digital out,” Puig writes. “We want the topic to become something that can be talked publicly, a topic on which people respect and listen to different opinions.”
For the first time since the country was under dictatorship, the law is at a pivotal point. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet made it a campaign promise to loosen the restrictions, and she is poised to do so.
Abortions of any kind were banned in 1989 during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet—who returned the law to the language of the original 1874 penal code, ending 60 years of laws that were slightly more relaxed. In 1931, the same year women were granted abortion rights, they also gained the right to vote.
These two rights are set to come to a head very soon. On January 31, Bachelet introduced a bill that would allow abortions in extreme circumstances—in cases of rape; if the fetus has deadly defects; or if delivery puts the mother’s life in danger. "Facts have shown that the absolute criminalization of abortion has not stopped the practice," she said on television. And because of this, illegal abortions “often take place in conditions that pose great risks to the life and health of women.”
The motion was brought to parliament for discussion in March, and the health committee is still hearing testimony. Nicholls believes there are 200 or so institutions lining up to make their views heard. According to recent polls, more than 70 percent of Chileans support the legislation.
Chile, Nicholls laments, was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to legalize divorce—it didn’t change its law until 2004. She hopes it won’t come in last on abortion, too.