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Women's Health

Therapeutic Abortion Faces Political Resistance in Chile

SANTIAGO, Aug 5 2013 (IPS) - Nearly a quarter century after Chile’s return to democracy, there is still a lack of political will to legalise therapeutic abortion, analysts say, even though Congress is debating several draft laws on the question.

Natalia Flores, executive secretary of the Observatory on Gender Equity, says the legislation currently in place, which bans abortion under all circumstances, restricts the fundamental rights of women.

“In Chile, the fact that abortion is illegal for any reason makes women second-class citizens, because they are not allowed to make decisions about their bodies, which is their basic territory,” she told IPS.

Therapeutic abortion refers to the termination of a pregnancy when the mother’s life is at risk, the foetus is deformed or dead, or the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape.

Chilean women had access to therapeutic abortion for over 50 years, until the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet made it illegal in 1989, just a few months before the transition to democracy.

Several attempts to decriminalise abortion in cases where the mother’s life is at risk or the foetus has severe birth defects have failed in the legislature due to the votes of the right-wing coalition currently governing the country, along with the more conservative sectors in the centre-left Concert of Parties for Democracy.

But the case of a pregnant 11-year-old girl who had been sexually abused for two years by her stepfather triggered an unprecedented debate in Chile, which took on special importance in the midst of the campaign for the Nov. 17 elections.

The plight of 11-year-old Belén and similar cases that have come to light since she became headline news around the world prompted many political leaders and physicians to speak out in favour of making therapeutic abortion legal once again.

“This is a debt of democracy to Chilean women, because many of them have had very painful life stories and experiences, and have been exposed to unsafe abortions,” sociologist Claudia Dides, spokeswoman for Miles Chile (Thousands Chile), the country’s biggest pro-choice umbrella group, told IPS.

Chile is one of the Latin American countries where conservative Catholic sectors hold the greatest sway, and one of the few South American nations presently governed by the right, by the hand of President Sebastián Piñera.

It is also one of a small number of countries in the world where abortion is illegal under any circumstance.

Women or doctors found guilty of inducing an abortion can be sentenced to three to five years in prison.

But activists point out that only poor women actually face that risk, as they cannot afford to pay for a safe abortion in a clandestine clinic but instead undergo back-street abortions, which often lead to them ending up in the emergency room at a public hospital, where they face prosecution.

An average of 160,000 illegal abortions a year are practiced in this country of 17 million people, according to estimates by the National Institute of Statistics.

Flores pointed out that several international bodies like the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) have warned the Chilean state that the law criminalising abortion under all circumstances violates the human rights of women.

“Nevertheless, after more than 20 years of democracy, the state has maintained its stance, and owes a great debt to women,” she said.

Since 1990, more than 20 draft laws have been introduced to modify the law penalising abortion, but none has prospered.

One of the frustrated initiatives was sponsored in 2010 by socialist Senator Fulvio Rossi and the current presidential candidate for the ruling right-wing alliance, Evelyn Matthei.

But Matthei has now spoken out against the decriminalisation of therapeutic abortion.

On the other side of the fence, former president Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), the centre-left coalition’s presidential candidate, has publicly stated that she will attempt to legalise abortion in cases of rape and risks to the mother’s life if she is elected.

The Senate is currently studying four draft laws that would legalise therapeutic abortion, as well as abortion in cases of rape. Miles Chile, which brings together civil society organisations, health professionals and activists’ networks, is behind two of the bills.

Dides said “there is a political veto of abortion; today it is impossible to imagine a debate on it in parliament.”

She said Miles Chile is only pressing for the legalisation of therapeutic abortion because “there is no chance of obtaining legal abortion even in the case of rape,” due to the conservative composition of Congress.

Dides said 64 percent of respondents in a recent survey were in favour of legal abortion when the mother’s life is at risk, the foetus cannot survive outside the womb, or cases of rape.

But “as with other issues, Chile’s (political leadership) doesn’t even listen to civil society,” she complained.

Flores said surveys show that, despite the socially conservative attitudes that can be found in virtually all of the country’s political parties, the citizens hold much more progressive views.

On Jul. 25, more than 8,000 people – according to the organisers – marched in Santiago to demand “free, safe abortion”.

The only way progress towards the decriminalisation of abortion will be made is if the public continues to come out on the streets en masse, Flores said.

She complained about “hypocrisy” in Chile, where the rape of a young girl causes shock on one hand, while on the other, “there aren’t even integral policies for protecting children.”

Cuba, Mexico City, and most recently Uruguay are the only places in Latin America where abortion is legal. In other countries in the region it is allowed in specific circumstances, such as cases of rape, incest, foetal abnormality, or risk to the mother’s life.

But as in Chile, abortion is illegal under any circumstances in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Official figures indicate that 2,550 legal abortions were performed in Uruguay between December – when the law legalising abortion went into effect – and May. No maternal deaths or health complications occurred as a result of the abortions.

Abortion is the leading cause of maternal mortality in Latin America. Bringing down the maternal mortality rate is one of the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the international community in 2000, with a 2015 deadline.

Dides said Latin American society generally supports therapeutic abortion, while more than 25 percent of the public is in favour of legal abortion on demand.

But in Chile, “the political leaders do not want to tackle the issue,” despite the public’s support for legal abortion, she added.

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