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CHILE: Therapeutic Abortion – A Distant but Not Impossible Prospect

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 22 2006 (IPS) - Activists fighting for the decriminalisation of therapeutic abortion in Chile have long faced a depressing scenario: zero political will, stiff opposition from the Catholic Church and limited public support. Today, though, they are encouraged by positive signals on contraception from the government of Michelle Bachelet.

On Sep. 28, which has been designated the Day for the Decriminalisation and Legalisation of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean, about a hundred women belonging to several different women’s organisations will march through the streets of Valparaíso, 120 kilometres west of Santiago.

The women will visit Congress, located in that port city, to deliver a petition with a long list of signatures, asking parliament to legalise abortion. They will then go to the Cathedral to commemorate women who have died from complications suffered while undergoing backstreet abortions.

That same day a vigil will be held in Santiago’s central Constitution square. From 5 p.m. until midnight, around a dozen civil society organisations will hold recreational activities and show short films about abortion.

“Our main aim is to increase awareness in the community, because women who have abortions are still seen as murderers and criminals,” Rosa Yáñez, regional coordinator of the Open Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Chile, made up of more that 30 organisations across the country, told IPS.

The activists’ main demand is the reinstatement of therapeutic abortion (carried out when the mother’s life is in danger), which was available in the country from 1931 to 1989 and then prohibited by the dictatorship of retired general Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). At present, women who undergo abortions risk prison terms of three to five years.

They are also demanding that the public health services which ultimately treat women who have undergone unsafe abortions, should treat these patients humanely and not report them to the authorities. Some 160,000 abortions are carried out every year, with an annual maternal death rate of 10 percent, which makes them one of the major causes of maternal deaths in Chile.

“We are aware of the opposition from the conservative right and the Catholic Church. The issue is not high on President Bachelet’s agenda, either, and there is no mass mobilisation of the people of this country. But none of that means that we can’t raise our voices and our claims,” Yáñez stated.

The issue of abortion made another appearance in the public domain at the 36th session of the expert committee of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), held in mid-August at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

CEDAW was approved in 1979 by the U.N. General Assembly and has so far been adopted by 183 countries worldwide. It was ratified by Chile in 1989.

The CEDAW committee is composed of experts elected by U.N. member countries, who analyse the reports provided by the States party and make recommendations to further the elimination of discrimination against women. The Chilean delegation to the last session was led by the minister of the National Service for Women, Laura Albornoz, who presented the fourth report on Chile’s progress on gender equity.

When asked about the decriminalisation of abortion, Albornoz replied that the issue was not on the agenda of President Bachelet, who took office on Mar. 11.

The committee also expressed concern about the delay in ratifying CEDAW’s optional protocol, which has been bogged down in Congress since 2002 – and which is on the president’s agenda.

Ratification of the optional protocol means a country recognises the competence of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women – which oversees compliance with the Convention by the signatory states – to receive and study individual complaints.

“The optional protocol to CEDAW is very important for Chilean women, because it contains mechanisms for victims of discrimination to take their cases directly to an international tribunal,” Camila Maturana, a lawyer with the non-governmental Humanas Corporation, explained to IPS.

She further clarified that people can only resort to the Committee in extreme cases, when all legal recourse within the country has been exhausted. The verdicts of the Committee are not binding, she added.

Nevertheless, some rightwing opposition members of parliament have publicly opposed the ratification of this instrument, and criticised the recommendations of the expert committee, which has called on Chile to review its abortion legislation.

The CEDAW committee’s “proposals lack guiding values. On the contrary, they break up families, alienate women, and grant too many rights and too few duties,” María Angélica Cristi, parliamentary deputy for the far-right Independent Democratic Union (UDI), told the El Mercurio newspaper a few weeks ago.

Similarly, UDI senator Juan Antonio Coloma said that “ratifying the protocol would open the doors to abortion in Chile, and that would be a grave mistake.” Meanwhile, Senator Sergio Romero of the rightwing National Renewal (RN) party said that ratifying the protocol would limit the jurisdiction of Chilean laws and courts.

Minister Albornoz is now waiting for the new recommendations to arrive from New York, which she said would focus on “women’s meagre representation in public posts, the high number of murders of women so far this year, domestic violence against women, and the low proportion of women in the labour market.”

“Unfortunately, the political right has for many years rejected various international justice mechanisms, such as the Rome Statute which created the International Criminal Court,” said Maturana, who believes that decriminalising abortion will again be recommended by the expert committee.

The lawyer said that behind the position taken by the right there is a conservative concept of society which does not recognise gender equality, so that there is a tendency to carry out disinformation campaigns in society. “They are always putting the family unit above the sexual and reproductive rights of women,” she said.

With regard to the ban on therapeutic abortion, Maturana said that Chile is “way behind” the rest of the world, and that legalising it is “a debt to women,” because the preservation of the life of the mother is not paramount.

She said it would be very difficult to reinstate therapeutic abortion in the short term, but added that “the country is gradually opening up to the debate.”

“Ten years ago, no one would have thought that we would have a divorce law, and now we have one. Five years ago, no one would have thought that we would be discussing the sexuality of 14-year-old girls so openly, and now this is happening,” said Maturana, referring to the controversy unleashed by the Ministry of Health’s new national norms on fertility regulation, announced at the beginning of this month.

The Bachelet administration authorised the country’s public health services to prescribe and distribute traditional birth control as well as emergency contraceptives (“the morning-after pill”) free of charge to women over 14, with no need for parental consent.

The measure was halted by the Santiago Court of Appeals on Sep. 13 in response to legal challenges by a mayor and by two private individuals, who argued that the government’s action undermined the right of parents to choose how to raise their children.

But on Friday, the Court of Appeals revoked its previous decision, and is allowing distribution of the morning-after pill to proceed until it has studied the legal demands “in depth.” Meanwhile, on Thursday the Ministry of Education announced the start of a sex education programme in the country’s schools.

Maturana sees the distribution of the morning-after pill as “a sign that the debate is moving forward.”

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