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Chileans stand up for abortion rights

Sophia Boddenberg
May 25, 2017

Abortion is completely illegal in Chile, but reforming the outright ban is under consideration. Social conservatives and religious groups have pushed back hard against it.

Chile Weltfrauentag Protest
Image: DW/S. Boddenberg

"Keep your rosaries away from our ovaries," read one of the many signs carried by thousands of pro-abortion rights protesters who recently took to the streets of Santiago to support a woman's right to choose. The protesters marched through the center of Chile's capital at a time when their government is considering ending its complete ban on abortion - one of six countries that prohibits the procedure for any reason, along with Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Vatican City and Malta. Both women and assisting doctors can face up to five years in prison for performing an abortion.

Miles Chile, a pro-abortion rights organization, led the march as well as the lobbying efforts for the reform. The group is advocating for the right to an abortion under the "Tres Causales," or three reason rule: rape, when the woman's life is in danger and in the case of a genetic or structural condition that would lead to a stillbirth.

Chile Weltfrauentag Protest | MILES
Abortion of any kind remains illegal in ChileImage: DW/S. Boddenberg

Conservative influence

The "Tres Causales" reform is part of the platform of President Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first female head of state. The country's Chamber of Deputies approved the measure last year, but it has stalled in various senate committees. Further review can last months.

Claudia Dides, the director of Miles Chile, has faced intense resistance from conservative and religious groups. She has been the victim of verbal and physical assault. She has been called a murderer and feminazi, and once had a plastic fetus dangled in front of her.

"It's brutal when someone screams in your face that you're a murderer, although I haven't killed anybody," she said.

Chile Weltfrauentag Protest | Claudia Dides
Women's rights activist Claudia Diles has faced intense backlash from conservative and religious groupsImage: DW/S. Boddenberg

The abortion ban came into force in 1989 during the reign of military strongman Augusto Pinochet. Abortion had been legal since 1931 if the pregnancy threatened the health of the mother.

"The abortion ban is one of several holdovers from the military dictatorship," Dides said. "Chile still hasn't completely overcome that period in its history."

Slow progress

A university student, who asked to be called Paula, was 18 when she opted to abort an unwanted pregnancy. She is now 28. If the "Tres Causales" reform passes, her abortion would remain illegal because it does not fit one of the three rules. Like many women in her country, she used the drug Misoprostol to terminate the pregnancy, which costs between 100 to 150 euros ($112 to $168) on the black market and has been illegal in Chile since 2001.

"A mafia has built up around the drug. There is little information about how to use it and much of it is incorrect," she said. "And that is dangerous, it can even be deadly."

Chile Weltfrauentag Protest
'Your body, your choice' reads this poster in ChileImage: DW/S. Boddenberg

Unclear abortion figures

Some 160,000 women in Chile terminate their pregnancies annually, according to Human Rights Watch. The government estimates 33,000, but this is only the number officially registered at hospitals and due to pregnancy complications. The true number of abortions is likely much higher.

Should the reform become law, it would be significant progress for a country accustomed to slow change, Paula said. However, she believes there would still be many secret abortions.

"The goal must be completely legal abortion," she said. "Under all circumstances."