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Abortion Rights Debate Continues to Cause Tension Throughout Chile

A look at the current climate surrounding abortion law in the country

In Chile, tensions over the uncertain future of family planning and the right to abortion have been growing once again. On September 28, large pro-choice protests took place outside La Moneda, the historic home of the Chilean government in the capital of Santiago. They yelled, “derecho a decidir,” and “aborto por la vida,” which translates to “the right to decide,” and “abortion for life.”
The organizers referred to the movement as ‘the green tide,’ a symbolic name that references the growing momentum of feminism in Latin America. This marks the latest in a number of demonstrations calling for improved women’s rights.

Back in 2018, over 40,000 women marched through Santiago. The protest ended tragically, with three women being stabbed. In 2019, an anti-rape song recorded by a group of Chileans went viral and was utilized by protestors worldwide. Moreover, reports of underage school children experiencing sexual assault rose by 55 per cent in 2022. The response was a number of strikes and the closure of a school in the centre of the city. After a slight lull, a second wave of protests is being seen across Chile.

This growing tension can be pinned down to the impending release of the new Constitution. The new set of laws will be the third attempt to rewrite the Constitution that has been in place since 1980, under the dictatorship of Augustus Pinochet. However, in 2022, President Gabriel Boric’s attempt to introduce one of the world’s most left-leaning bills of rights was voted down, leading to the election of a new Constitutional Council. There, the conservative Republican Party won 23 out of the available 51 seats. This has granted their leader, far-right Catholic Jose Kast, the opportunity to lead in the drafting of the new bill. Kast had previously expressed deep opposition to abortions, such as trying to outlaw the contraception pill back in 2007. He also previously proposed removing the Ministry for Women, a position he has since abandoned. His Constitution will be voted on by the public in December of this year.

Currently, abortion is legal in three situations: when the life of the mother is at risk, when the fetus is not viable, and in cases of rape during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy (or 14 weeks if the woman is under 14 years old). However, since 2018, clinics can refuse abortion based solely on their ideological perspective. Kast claims that if he were to introduce a total ban, he would be simply representing the views of his country. Indeed, a 2021 poll stated that 54 per cent of Chileans disagreed with the legalization of the medical procedure up until 12 weeks of pregnancy, regardless of the reason.

In 2015, a campaign group called InformAborto launched a public pro-life campaign. Their social media shows them driving through the streets of Santiago with a large and explicit image of a fetus, with the words “torture and disappearance”. This reflects their attempt to liken it to the crimes of Augustus Pinochet, who was responsible for over 3000 human rights violations.

Despite this, there has been great outrage coming from the left in response to these proposed measures. Paloma Zúñiga Cerda, a member of the Democratic Revolution party and part of the Constitutional Council, argued that the views of the Republican Party were deeply hypocritical. For one, she notes that Kast has failed to condemn the murders that took place during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. This, she claims, shows a stronger disregard for life than that of pro-lifers.
Moreover, earlier this year, 15 members of the house voted against condemning the sexual violence that took place during this time. One member of the Republican Party referred to the hundreds of reports of rape and sexual assault as ‘urban legend.’ Similarly, others have drawn comparisons to the perceived lack of state action against the rise in domestic violence against women. For example, only 73 per cent of the cases of femicide recorded between 2010 and 2019 ended in sentencing.

The UN have also called on Chile to improve gender equality in the country, citing that in 2018, 5.8 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months. Cerda wonders how the right can claim to be protecting the life of the unborn child while showing disregard for the lives of countless women. She has since voiced her attempts to ensure gender equality is provided by the next constitution.

A huge consequence of Chile’s strict abortion laws is the rise in at-home abortions. Around the city, one can find numerous fliers on how to obtain misoprostol, a prohibited medicine commonly used to terminate an early pregnancy. This pill is increasingly used illegally by Chilean women, an act that can be dangerous and extremely isolating. Indeed, in 2017, up to 70,000 abortions took place in this way. In 2014, this was responsible for up to 900 deaths in Latin America, and Human Rights Watch claims this has disproportionality affected poorer and Indigenous women. This act is punishable by five years imprisonment, yet this hasn’t stopped a number of clandestine groups supplying the drug. Alongside the medication, these “abortion doulas” provide emotional support to those in the process. Organisations such as Advocates for Youth even offer training to those as young as 14 to help those who want to guide others with the procedure.

Chile continues to be divided on this policy. The conservative members of the constitutional council affirm that they “are not making any changes that could affect the three-cause abortion law,” yet the Green Tide continues to spread the hashtag, “#SeraLey,” or “It will be Legal.”