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In Chile, Women Live Under an Absolute Ban on All Abortions

Sep 1 2015 2:05 PM
In Chile, Women Live Under an Absolute Ban on All Abortions

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98 percent of the world allows abortion when the mother’s health is at risk. But Chile is one of seven countries that have criminalized abortion without exception.

Pía Fuentes was a first-year student at a private Catholic university in Chile's capital when she noticed she had missed her period. She picked up a pregnancy test at a pharmacy and went straight home, making up an excuse to her mother about why she was home so soon. The test came up positive. "I kept it in my bag," Fuentes, 33, recalled from her red brick home in Santiago. "I left the apartment, and in the elevator I broke down crying."

It would be a normal reaction even in the best circumstances. But this was Chile in 2001, one of the few countries that still today lives under a total ban on abortions.

Read More: How the Disingenuous Attacks on Planned Parenthood Hurt Women Around the Globe

But as Fuentes's story—to which we will return—makes clear, the ban on abortions doesn't make it impossible to get one. In a radio interview on August 23, president Michelle Bachelet emphasized that abortion, though "unspoken" in Chile, happens; an estimate by the Guttmacher Institute recently cited in the Chilean senate puts the annual rate of abortions at nearly 160,000.

In January, Bachelet signed a proposal to legalize the procedure in three cases: that of risk to a woman's life, inviability (or "severe malformation") of the fetus, and rape. The bill should reach the final stages of the legislative process in the next few weeks, though it might only pass with even tighter stipulations.

Before 1989, abortion in some of these cases had been legal in Chile, as an exception under Article 119 of the country's health code passed in the 30s.

But in one of his last acts in power, Augusto Pinochet (Chile's dictator from 1973 to 1990) and his coterie of military men gutted the article's wording, replacing it with an absolute ban on any and all abortive procedures. The article is still on the books; a simple note in the margin alludes to the law that changed its content years ago. Women who abort in Chile run the risk of a five-year jail sentence, or even death, considering the poor sanitary conditions that can accompany clandestine abortions.

An opinion poll found more than seven in ten Chileans to be in favor of legalizing abortions for each of the three cases under discussion.

With so few people holding so much power, the personal was indeed political: The regime's navy chief, José Toribio Merino, suggested the ban to Pinochet in the first place. A 1995 book on reproductive rights chalked up the passage of the ban to "strong pressure from the Catholic Church", an institution with perhaps less influence now than it once had on this issue.

Christian Vidal Beros, a lawyer who teaches constitutional rights, adds that Merino had the wishes of his conservative wife, and those of a Catholic cardinal, in mind. "Anticipating the change in government, and considering that democracy was coming back, the Catholic Church's preoccupation with leaving behind certain conservative norms came into play," Vidal Beros told Broadly.

Bachelet's initiative to reverse the ban isn't the first: at her proposal's signing, the president noted that 12 decriminalizing bills have been tabled in both chambers of Chile's congress since 1991.

Her own may do no better. Support for the bill is split evenly within her political coalition, where some congressmen want to narrow down the conditions under which the bill would allow access to abortions. This opposition comes despite popular support: An opinion poll last month found more than seven in ten Chileans to be in favor of legalizing abortions for each of the three cases under discussion. Bachelet underscored the statistic on the radio last month.

Yet abortion is still a hot-button issue in Chile. In her radio appearance, Bachelet added that disenfranchised women seeking abortions are met with poor and potentially lethal conditions.

In December, minister of health Helia Molina resigned after saying much the same in an interview with a Chilean daily. "In all the upper-class clinics, many conservative families have had their daughters abort," she said. Her statement was perhaps more "pejorative toward certain groups" than Bachelet's, Molina admitted recently (her word for "upper class," cuica, could also be translated as "snobbish" or "ritzy").

More recently, pro-choice organization Miles Chile released a jarring series of "abortion tutorials" highlighting some of the desperate measures women might consider in order to induce their own abortions.

Pía Fuentes's parents learned about her pregnancy the same day she did, and were initially supportive, she said. They didn't ask for the details, though Fuentes feels they did quickly drive to the conclusion that an abortion was best. "I don't regret anything, but they put pressure on the decision-making," she said. Fuentes and her mother immediately started looking for clinics where the abortion might be done.

"We first went to a gynecologist. An old man who said he didn't know anything, who couldn't do it, who shut down the conversation," said Fuentes. She describes another visit to a clinic in an upscale district of Santiago as "worrying. It was dark. I'm not sure he was a gynecologist."

She recalled how the man had no attendants, no secretary, and no means of providing an ultrasound. She and her mother left.

Fuentes's friend, an active feminist, eventually led them to the right place: a white building that now houses a kindergarten. Five other women were waiting in the lobby, she said, some younger than her. Fuentes got an ultrasound test and was told the fetus measured eight millimeters long. On a second visit, for which she had fasted as instructed, she was put under general anesthesia and had the fetus removed by aspiration.

Read More: The Abortion Pill

Fuentes and her family were able to get a fraction of the cost covered by her insurance, under the cover of getting treated for warts (a more common alibi for an abortion is appendicitis). Her family still ended up paying about two million pesos, she said—or around $4,200 today—in cash.

Fuentes was among 5,000 demonstrators who marched in Santiago's streets last summer, many of whom were protesting the prohibitive cost of clandestine abortions as much as their illegal status. "We're here to say that abortion has an element of class," one student said.

Lidia Casas, a lawyer and member of the Center for Human Rights at Diego Portales University, agrees. "How much money you've got is the type of abortion you get," Casas said. "You could go, in fact, in a very fancy clinic and get a fancy doctor, a very good staff, and pay two million [pesos] or even more, to have a clean abortion with all the staff around you..

In 2013, the center's annual report on human rights included interviews with 40 women who had gotten abortions in the past, as early as the late 80s and as recently as 2013.

I think change will be left to the more distant future, and that it will be a tough fight.

Edited by Casas, the report concluded that class (i.e., money and access to information) was directly linked not just to having more medical options, but also to being less likely to get on the wrong side of the law. Multiple interviewees for the Center for Human Rights report felt like they'd been dealing with drug pushers when buying misoprostol, medication commonly used in Latin America to induce abortions. "Sellers appeared nervous, and thought they were seeing cops everywhere they looked," the report says.

Casas describes a labyrinthine route for any bill legalizing abortion. Congress has asked for the prerogative to discuss each of the bill's grounds for abortion individually, she says, such that they could "reject one of the grounds and accept another."

Recent comments by lawmakers suggest this is plausible. "The rape clause will likely be rejected," a congressman with the Christian Democrats (who belong to Bachelet's coalition) told Reuters. "As for fetal viability, we believe this will pass, but only where the father, when possible, has a say."

Another patronizing amendment would oblige hospitals to inform a local prosecutor anytime a woman wants an abortion on the grounds of rape.

With these suggestions and others in the air, "you don't know exactly what kind of bill you will have at the end of the day," Casas said.

Read More: The Activist Helping Women Have DIY Abortions

Discussion (and a potential vote) in the lower chamber could start as early as next week, before going on to the senate, which is seen as more conservative.

Silvia Lamadrid, a professor of sociology and long-time activist for women's rights, thinks reproductive rights in Chile will grow slowly but steadily. She was present at the demonstration last summer. Older and quieter than most protesters, Lamadrid walked on the sidewalks rather than in the middle of the street. She believed then that abortion rights on the three grounds would come soon, before full and unrestricted access for no reason other than a woman's right to choose. "It will take a bit more time, but it will come," she said with a smile.

But given the recent challenges from Chile's conservative lawmakers, Lamadrid now fears abortion in the case of rape won't make it into the bill. "I think change will be left to the more distant future, and that it will be a tough fight," she wrote in an email.

Pía Fuentes welcomes progress in small steps. "I'm the kind of person who thinks advancing in steps is a good thing," she said. "I don't want for my daughter to ever live through the same shit I did."

In many ways, Fuentes was more fortunate than many Chilean women in her access to medical treatment and the means to pay for it. Among the women who spoke with the Center for Human Rights for their report, there was the one whose sister had died from a clandestine abortion; the one who learned on the news that the person who'd treated her was actually a dentist; and the one whose doctor blackmailed her for more money upon finding out she was the daughter of a public figure.

Fuentes recognizes her luck. "We will have to fight afterwards for it to be available and paid by the government. Obviously, if it's not free, only certain people can get abortions."

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