Chile Takes Steps to Allow Abortion to Save a Woman’s Life

Chile is one of a handful of countries that would allow a woman to die before permitting her to have an abortion. This has not always been the case. The Health Code of 1931 allowed abortion to save a woman’s life, but the dictator Augusto Pinochet eliminated that exception in 1989, when he criminalized abortion without exception as one of his last acts before relinquishing power.  President Michelle Bachelet is looking to right that wrong.

Bachelet announced in her May 21 state of the nation address that her government supports legislation to decriminalize abortion in three cases: rape, an unviable fetus, or to save the life of a woman. “Periodically we learn through the news of cases where women have had secret abortions that put their lives at risk and without a doubt are experiencing great pain and anguish,” Bachelet said. While no new legislation has been introduced, there are several bills already in Congress that the administration and allies in Congress are reviewing. While similar bills have failed in the Chilean Congress in the past, the fact that the ruling coalition has a majority in both legislative houses is reason for optimism. Bachelet told one Chilean paper last week that the bill should be approved near the end of the year.

Another important step toward expanding protection of reproductive rights was a directive in late May from the Ministry of Health to doctors instructing them to respect patient confidentiality and not report women whom they suspect of obtaining an illegal abortion. The document also reminded doctors of their right to refuse to testify against women in criminal cases. This likely was precipitated by the arrest of a 17-year-old girl who had gone to the hospital with severe hemorrhaging and was reported to the police by her doctor. She now faces a trial and a possible prison term of up to five years.

Despite the blanket ban on abortion in Chile, it’s estimated that at least 70,000 abortions are performed annually; the United Nations estimates that up to 40 percent of maternal deaths in the country are caused by complications from unsafe abortion. In 2011, eight women died as a result of an illegal abortion. An overwhelming majority of Chilean women support Bachelet’s position: a recent poll found 84 percent believe abortion should be allowed when the woman’s life is at risk; 80 percent believe it should be allowed in cases of rape or when the fetus is unviable.

These announcements were bolstered recently by the June 18 response by Chile to the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review’s (UPR) recommendations, which had called on the country to change its punitive law. The Universal Periodic Review is a quadrennial review of the human rights record of all UN Member States, which identifies areas that need to be improved. Chile responded that the country would commit to changing the law.

President Bachelet, who assumed the presidency in March 2014, is a former pediatrician and the first executive director of UN Women. In a 2012 speech in she said: “No woman should pay with her life for a lack of options […]What is really at stake here is the right to life: a woman’s right to life, and all the other human rights to which every woman is entitled.”  At a time when women’s reproductive rights are under siege from all corners of the world, including the most recent blow rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing employers to deny its employees insurance coverage for several forms of birth control, it’s heartening to see progress in a country where women’s most fundamental rights have been denied for so long.

Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

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