Chile Needs to Get with the 21st Century on Abortion


Español On Saturday, January 31, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet introduced a proposal to revoke a 1989 Pinochet-era law which would, in effect, decriminalize therapeutic abortion. Should the new law pass, Chilean women would be permitted to end pregnancies on the grounds of rape, nonviability of the fetus, or health risks to the mother should the pregnancy continue.

Chilean President Bachelet proposes to decriminalize therapeutica abortions.
Chilean President Bachelet proposes to decriminalize therapeutic abortions. (Wikimedia)

While Chile is a culturally conservative country, with deep Catholic roots that may conflict with modern notions of equality and rights, this welcome move must only be seen as a first step.

Total decriminalization is necessary. Chilean women have been under the state’s thumb for far too long, threatened with prison time for wanting to make a decision that is nobody’s business but theirs.

Chile is currently one of five Latin-American nations with complete prohibitions on abortion (the others are El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic). As a result, many women and children must carry unsafe pregnancies to term or risk their lives by obtaining “backroom abortions,” be that by aborting with DIY attempts with drugs (like misoprostol) or using other dangerous methods.

Bachelet’s proposal would not come as an innovation. From 1931, abortion in certain circumstances was legal — a situation only reversed in the final days of the Pinochet dictatorship, when Law 18.826 criminalized it in every circumstance. So a legalization of therapeutic abortion would not mean the granting of new rights, but the restoration of freedoms taken away relatively recently. At present, a woman consenting to an abortion faces three to five years behind bars, while doctors aiding the procedure can receive up to 10 years.

Natural Rights

Aside from the public-health issues posed by this law, such as risk of death or permanent health problems, there is a core philosophical issue that needs to be addressed. When a woman is sent to prison for a medical procedure, her right to self-ownership is undermined. The right to determine what she does with her body is hers alone.

On this issue as with others, I draw inspiration from the philosophy of John Locke expounded in his Second Treatise of Government. Locke hypothesized about a state of nature: where no government existed, individuals would enjoy natural rights, as well as natural boundaries, or laws, that kept everyone in line.

The most important right was the right to self-ownership, which must be protected whether living in a stateless society or not. This is what Locke called the right of nature, but that right does not give the individual a “blank check” to do whatever she wants to preserve her own life. As humans are rational by nature, using calm reason is a necessary condition to making ethical and moral decisions. This ensures that reactions are proportionate to whatever issue is at hand.

Along with our natural reason, we are naturally free, with sole domain over ourselves, and any power taken from us by force is illegitimate.

A Constitutional Question

The current Political Constitution of the Republic of Chile was ratified in October, 1980, during the Pinochet dictatorship, and has since undergone 12 amendments between 1989 and 2010. Despite its authoritarian origins, the Constitution pays at least symbolic attention to fundamental rights, and prohibits the state from violating them.

Article 5 recognizes that “the exercise of sovereignty recognizes as a limitation the respect for the essential rights originating from human nature,” while Article 19 “guarantees to all persons … respect for and protection of private and public life, and the honor of the individual and his family.”

Yet the abortion criminalization decree that came into force in 1989 violated these constitutional freedoms. Women, it would seem, currently fail to qualify as “persons” whose private lives and honor merit defending.

It is none of the state’s business whether a woman wants to end a pregnancy or not, especially when the decree penalizing her freedom to choose was made without her consent, or that of anyone else.

Archbishop of Santiago Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati recently called for all believers to demonstrate against Bachelet’s proposals, asking them to “defend life, and the dignity of life.”

But Ezzati failed to provide a clear concept of “the dignity of life.” There’s little dignified about forcing a woman to forgo medical treatment that could save her life, go through the agony of bringing a fetus to term that has no chance of surviving, give birth to the child of her rapist, or undergo a risky back-street abortion.

I commend President Bachelet for speaking out against chauvinistic, outdated policies that subvert basic human rights, but there remains far more work to be done on the issue.

The state has no role to play in women’s reproductive rights, their medical choices, and their spiritual life. Should her actions have spiritual consequences, then those are between her and her higher power of choice.

The state and the church’s intrusions into issues that belong to women alone are striking. What’s so scary about giving women freedom to choose?

Edited by Laurie Blair and Fergus Hodgson.

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