Chile close to easing total abortion ban

Mar 18, 2016, 2:25 PM EDT
A pro-choice march, July 25, 2013. Sign translates to "My body is mine, I decide!"
(Source: Santiago Times/flickr)

On Thursday, Chile's lower house of Congress took a major step towards ending the country's total ban on abortions. Legislators approved a proposal that allows abortions in cases of rape, when there is a health risk for the mother, or when the fetus is not viable. The total ban dates back to 1989, one of the last acts of right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet, but now over 70% of Chileans in this predominantly Catholic country support the new bill.

The bill overcame vigorous opposition from the right in the House of Deputies, and the legislative battle is not yet over. It still has to pass the Senate and be signed by the president (currently Michelle Bachelet, an ardent supporter of increasing Chilean women’s reproductive rights) to become law.

According to Bachelet’s administration, passing the bill would resolve 5% of the estimated 70,000 annual clandestine abortions carried out under risky conditions in Chile. Similar rates exist in most of the rest of Latin America, given that 5 other countries have a total ban on abortions, many more restrict it to extreme circumstances like in Chile’s bill, and only 4 (Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay, and Puerto Rico) allow unrestricted access.

Unsafe abortions cause at least 10% of the deaths of pregnant women in Latin America. According to Inquisitr News,

Of the 4.4 million abortions estimated to have been performed in the area in 2008, a staggering 95 percent of them were not carried out by professionals. On a related note, around 750,000 women were hospitalized due to complications from botched abortions.

As if the health risks weren’t bad enough, there can be serious jail time for women proven – or in some countries even suspected – to have had an illegal abortion. More than a dozen El Salvadoran women have been sentenced to as long as 50 years behind bars as a result of miscarriages or stillborn births, civil rights advocates say.

Fears of suspected health risks to the fetuses of pregnant women from the spreading Zika virus have only increased demand for abortions in Latin America. A frontline example comes from Women on Web, an international nonprofit that provides advice and drugs to women who want abortions but live in countries where the practice is banned. Spokesperson Leticia Zenevich recently said that in 2015, the group received 10,400 emails from women in the Spanish-speaking Americas and 9,500 emails from women largely in Brazil inquiring about abortion medication. The nonprofit had not yet calculated the exact increase in requests since the Zika outbreak began, but they believe the numbers could have doubled, she added. Since February 1, the nonprofit has been providing abortion pills – which usually cost $78-100 -- free of charge to women in Zika-affected countries.

But as Chile’s example shows, the tide might be starting to shift toward less restrictive abortion laws in Latin America -- and the sooner the better.