After deliberating all night, the Constitutional Court of Chile (TCC) ruled on Tuesday that new legislation allowing abortion in three cases – danger to the mother’s life, an unviable foetus or rape – is not unconstitutional. The decision removes the final hurdle faced by campaigners and centre-left President Michelle Bachelet in order to push through changes to the law, which had been under debate in Congress for two years. Only six states now ban abortion completely – the Vatican, Malta, Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.
Right-wing politicians and Catholic organisations have pledged to continue fighting the ruling, including the front-runner for November’s general election, Sebastián Piñera. The former President sparked fury in 2013 when he praised a pregnant 11-year-old rape victim for saying she was “happy to have the baby”, and that it would be “like having a doll”. Religious health networks have also claimed they will refuse to offer abortions except in life-threatening emergencies, transferring patients to other hospitals instead. However, despite numerous recent anti-abortion articles in Chile’s mostly conservative press, over 70% of Chileans support the right to choose in the three cases.
History of abortion in Chile
Chile had some of the most liberal abortion laws in Latin America until the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, then Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army, in 1973. During the final throes of the military dictatorship in 1989, the practice was made ‘officially illegal’ in all circumstances, driving as many as 160,000 women a year to seek unsafe alternatives or underground surgeries. At least 33,000 women a year need medical help after complications from illegal abortions – more than 10% of these are aged between 10 and 19 – and given that many avoid hospitals due to fear of prosecution or fines, this figure is thought to be an underestimation.
With Chile the second most unequal of the OECD countries behind only Mexico, it is unsurprising that the women most affected are almost always the poorest. While abortion pills are readily available online for those who can afford them, those who cannot must either rely on unsafe home concoctions or amateur surgeries.
Activists, rights groups and leftist politicians have been working on decriminalising abortion since the end of the dictatorship in 1990, having unsuccessfully submitted multiple bills to Congress. They have been repeatedly hindered by the difficulty of altering the Chilean constitution – the 1980 document drawn up during the Pinochet era was contrived to make significant changes almost impossible – and their success will be seen as a late victory for Michelle Bachelet as she nears the end of her second term as president.
Locking in the gains
Under the Chilean constitution, immediate re-election for a president is not permitted, and it seems increasingly probable that Bachelet’s centre-left coalition Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) will approach the November elections as a divided alliance with several potential candidates. While most Chileans are currently undecided, Sebastián Piñera looks likely to retake the presidency he held from 2010 to 2014.
Whether or not he could feasibly attempt to roll back the decriminalisation of abortion, he would undoubtedly be pressed to do so by far-right parties and the influential Catholic church, who have pledged to continue fighting the decision some believe was influenced by “an ideology of death”. Should he secure the presidency in three months time, the further liberalisation that many activists wish to see will almost certainly not take place for at least four years.
As Americas Director at Amnesty International Erika Guevara-Rosas warned, “the real test now is to ensure the law is actually enforced, that women and girls are fully able to access the comprehensive health services they need”. However, if the hospitalisation and deaths of thousands of women after illegal abortions begin to subside, it will be difficult to make a democratic or evidence-based case for restricting abortion again. Instead, activists hope the decision will act as a catalyst for other Catholic Latin American countries that currently ban abortion – Honduras, El Salvador, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua – to reconsider their positions on the issue.