In 2013, Chile garnered unwanted international attention when the government refused an abortion to an 11-year old girl who fell pregnant after being repeatedly sexually abused by her stepfather. The case came to be a focal point in the fight for the legalisation of abortion; a shocking case held up by pro-choice movements around the world. Four years on, and the law may have started evolving, but does the battle end there?
For decades, Chile was notorious for its severe stance on abortion which banned the gynaecological procedure under any circumstance. The prominence of the Catholic Church in Latin America means opposition to abortion by religious pro-life groups is fierce. Nonetheless, on 21 August 2017, after a hard-fought battle by President Michelle Bachelet’s Socialist Party, a revised law was finally passed with 70 percent public support, which allows abortion in prescribed circumstances. The new ruling, which has become known simply as the ‘tres causales’ (three grounds [for abortion]), was first proposed by Bachelet in 2015, and decriminalises abortion in three circumstances: first, if the mother’s life is at risk; second, if the foetus is unviable; and third, if the pregnancy is the result of sexual abuse.
Despite its past, few are aware that the South American state actually championed legal abortions in the early 20th century. Article 226, approved on 31st May 1931, allowed “Chilean women to terminate their pregnancy for therapeutic purposes”. In contrast, the UK’s Abortion Act was not passed for another 36 years, in 1967. The law was subsequently revoked in 1989 under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, and had remained illegal ever since.
At a time when abortion is continually being contested in media around the world, Chile’s case is significant not just on a national, but an international level, and hopes are that other countries will follow suit. Nowadays, absolute bans are rare, but other Latin American states such as Honduras, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador (to name a few) still ban abortion outright. Unsurprisingly, these countries have some of the highest rates of gender inequality in the world, as well as maternal mortality and instances of femicide.
In Ireland, also a Catholic state, the case of Savita Halappanavar drew international media attention when she was denied a termination despite suffering a spontaneous miscarriage at 17 weeks. As a result of the lack of medical intervention she developed sepsis and, after delivering a dead baby girl, consequently died a week later. Undeniably, this outcome could have been prevented had medical staff intervened and terminated her pregnancy. Campaigners hope that Chile’s ruling will also inspire other states with such harsh restrictions to rethink their abortion stance and bring an end to draconian state rules.
The issue doesn’t stop at putting an end to outright bans. There is a need to continually defend the right to abortion. Pro-life protesters have again began making headlines even in countries such as the UK and the USA. President Trump has vowed to reverse America’s current abortion law, which wasn’t passed in the U.S. until 1973. The controversial Roe v. Wade ruling affirmed the right of women to access abortion services until the third trimester, the point at which the foetus is able to exist outside the womb. Nonetheless, recent reports suggest women are being driven to carry their pregnancies to full-term due to a lack of state provision of abortion services and convoluted laws and requirements which have led to the closure of many abortion clinics.
Similarly, in the UK, proposals to completely decriminalise the procedure has sparked debate yet again. Under the UK’s 1967 law, abortion is still a criminal offence if it is not carried out within the guidelines stipulated by the law. For example, attempting to induce an abortion without the consent of two doctors (by taking the pills at home) is still punishable by imprisonment. Yet service availability in the UK can also be few and far between. Stories have emerged of women being obliged to travel to clinics in order to take the pills in the presence of a doctor (as required by law), only to have to suffer the oncoming painful abortion on a long journey home on public transport.
Women have always had abortions, and will always continue to do so. Banning abortion, as banning many things in society, only creates a black market; in this case the increase in the number of clandestine abortions. Women may be desperate to terminate their pregnancies for a myriad of reasons, personal, financial or medical, and thus may resort to any means necessary. The illegal administration of abortion drugs is one option which poses obvious risks of potential overdose and drug reactions, as well as complication which can arise during the process of miscarriage. In Chile, the smuggling of the drugs into the country made it an illegal but accessible option for many in the capital, Santiago. On the other hand, in isolated rural areas, as in developing countries, women without access to these drugs will resort to more extreme methods, some of which include drinking chemicals or inserting sharp objects into the cervical opening and uterus to induce an abortion. Often these incidents lead to uterine perforation amongst other complications, not to mention death. Statistics from the World Health Organisation show that, annually, there are 21.6 million unsafe abortions from which 47,000 women die, a figure which will only rise with further restrictions. In the cases when a woman is forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to full-term, the potential social implications and costs should be seriously considered, not to mention the psychological as well as physiological implications associated with forcing underage children to give birth.
Ultimately, it’s time the abortion debate moved away from the simple biological question of when life begins and associated morality questions. Abortion is a complex, emotionally-charged situation which is different for every single woman who has to consider it, and simplifying the debate to a matter of science and foetal viability is a failure to recognise the human rights of the woman. The debate is, and should be, a question of women’s reproductive rights; of gender equality. If the US were to overturn its abortion policy, it would be a serious setback for gender equality progress. The anti-abortion discourses perpetuated by the media and patriarchal institutions only serve to shame women, and their exercise of bodily autonomy. Men are erased from the discussion suffering no consequence, whilst women are forced to bear the responsibility of the decision and associated social prejudice. They are reduced to motherhood and it is shocking that any concern for the life of the woman can be completely disregarded, as in the case of Savita Halappananvar. While it may be extreme to reference Attwood’s Gilead dystopia, it is perhaps not unfitting.
Chile’s abortion law is no doubt monumental and a historical moment in the fight for gender equality, but there is still a long way to go. The upcoming presidential elections could make or break the new law, with opinion polls indicating that the re-election of right-wing candidate Sebastian Piñera could be on the cards. Incidentally, Piñera was President in 2013; praising the 11-year old girl on continuing with her pregnancy. His centre-left opponent Alejandro Guillier, however, vows increased spending on abortion services. If progress is to be made with women right’s in Chile, the state must now ensure that it makes abortion services accessible to women across the country, to avoid falling into a reality-rhetoric dichotomy like the United States.