Chile’s Bachelet Renews Bid to Legalize Abortion


EspañolOn Saturday, January 31, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet signed off on a proposal to legalize abortion in three specific circumstances: in cases of rape, non-viability of the fetus, and risk to the mother’s health.

The president, leader of the Chilean Socialist Party (PS), unveiled the bill in a press conference at the Moneda palace, one day before Congress broke for its February recess. As a result, the proposal will be subject to formal debate in March at the earliest, although arguments between conservative detractors and the pro-choice camp have already begun.

The project seeks to replace the existing legal arrangement whereby any activity designed to provoke abortion is illegal under all circumstances. The procedure was prohibited in 1989 in the final days of the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship, overturning a partial legalization in 1931. According to Bachelet, the existing law “doesn’t meet with the dignified treatment that the state should grant its citizens.”

“We must confront this debate as a mature country,” she added. “In a society where women are full and free citizens, neither the state nor anyone can oblige them to take a decision against their right and desire to be a mother. But at the same time, when their decision is to not continue with the pregnancy, for any of the three serious causes mentioned, the state should provide alternatives based in her rights, dignity, and to protect her life.”

Before interrupting a pregnancy, the doctor must first receive the “free decision of the woman.” The bill as it stands would permit women over 18 to have an abortion within the first 12 weeks of the pregnancy provided one of the three outlined conditions applies.

Bachelet cited official statistics that around 16,510 pregnant women were hospitalized every year in Chile with severe risks to their health. With regard to cases of rape, the Chilean premier noted that exact data didn’t exist, but stated that “we know that girls have been impregnated as a result of rape, some even younger than 12 years old.”

“Furthermore, the data demonstrates that absolute prohibition and criminalization … have failed to prevent abortion in conditions of grave risk to the life and health of women,” she added.

Those between 14 and 18 must first inform their parents, and the permissible time period will be extended to 18 weeks for girls under 14, who will require parental permission.

“The general limit to interrupt the pregnancy will be extended to 18 weeks, as we should recognize that girls and teenagers often fail to realize their situation [until later on],” Bachelet said.

Banner: If men could get pregnant, abortion would be legal. Caption: “I’m not in favor of abortion, I’m in favor of the right of each woman to decide.”

Abortion: Ethical Objections

Members of the co-governing Christian Democracy party have asked that each of the three conditions be voted upon separately in Congress, although several have supported previous similar proposals.

The reform follows multiple defeated or stalled attempts by the government and independent legislators. If passed, it will join successful moves to reform Chile’s tax system, change the country’s electoral system (including the provision of gender quotas), legalize civil partnerships for heterosexual and same-sex couples, create a Ministry for Women, and end profiteering in the state-funded education sector.

However, several groups have argued forcefully against legalization. Ignacio Sánchez, the rector of Santiago’s Catholic University (UC), has signaled that clinics attached to his institution will refuse out of principle to perform the procedure.

In practice, however, the decision on whether or not to provide assistance with abortion will be taken by doctors on an individual basis, meaning that medical institutions will not be compelled to make a choice either way.

“Bachelet seeks to legalize abortion in Chile for girls under 14. Sign here!”

“Doctors will be able to abstain from interrupting pregnancies when they have previously registered their objection for reasons of conscience in writing,” the text of the bill reads.

“However, they will be unable to excuse themselves from performing the interruption when the woman requires immediate attention, and no-one else can provide it,” it continues. Health providers are also obliged to reassign woman requiring an abortion to a different medical surgeon if their existing doctor has registered ethical objections.

Sánchez, however, has stated that “if there are doctors in the UC network willing to perform abortions, they will have to go and work elsewhere.”

“In our UC network, we don’t perform abortions; our principles and values aren’t going to change for a so-called legislative proposal, and that’s final,” he added. Santiago’s Archbishop, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, has also defended the right of institutions to exempt themselves on ethical grounds.

However, government spokesman José Gómez has stated in response to Sánchez’s claims that “when a law is passed it’s obligatory for everyone.”

Human-rights organization Amnesty International has supported Bachelet’s proposals, highlighting the importance of the step in protecting the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls.

“While women shouldn’t be penalized for carrying out an abortion in any circumstance, this legislative proposal constitutes a step in the right direction for the protection of rights,” said Americas Director Erika Guevara.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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