The decision by Chile’s constitutional court to approve a bill that will allow abortion in some circumstances has been hailed as “a triumph of reason and an act of justice” by campaigners.
The legislation, a victory for the centre-left president, Michelle Bachelet, will allow abortion when a woman’s life is at risk, in case of rape and when a foetus is not viable.
“Today, women have won, democracy has won, all of Chile has won,” said Bachelet, who introduced the bill in 2015.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said Chile had finally moved one step closer to protecting the human rights of women and girls.
“This victory is testament to the work of millions of women across the Americas and the world who fight against draconian laws that punish women and push them to seeking clandestine and dangerous abortions, putting their health and lives at risk.” Advertisement
Maria Stella Toro, from the EPES (Popular Education in Health) collective, said it was “a triumph of reason and an act of justice”, and that the move opened up the possibility of a much fuller public debate on abortion – with the ultimate goal of further liberalisation.
José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch’s director of the Americas, called the decision a “landmark for human rights in Chile. By ending the cruel, harmful, and regressive policy of criminalising abortion in all circumstances, the court protected women’s lives and fundamental rights.”
Toro did, however, sound a note of caution: “It’s difficult to view this as a complete victory, given that apart from the three cases permitted, all other forms of abortion continue to be criminalised. And most of the women who have been prosecuted have been reported to the authorities by medical institutions after suffering complications from an illegal abortion.”
Judges ruled in favour of the bill by 6-4 votes. The full text of the ruling will be published next week.
The court did allow for conscientious objection, meaning that any
doctor or medical assistant can refuse to carry out an abortion.
Reaction from opponents of the bill, led by the Catholic church, has been vitriolic. Cristián Contreras, vice-president of the Episcopal Conference of Bishops, said the ruling was “a terrible decision, influenced by an ideology of death” and runs against the fundamental principles of the country’s constitution.
Chile once had some of the most liberal abortion laws in Latin America. But conservative views, particularly those of the church, began to take hold. In the final phase of his dictatorship, Augusto Pinochet introduced an outright ban.
A recent opinion poll by the research firm Cadem found that some 70% of Chileans (pdf) supported the legalisation of abortion as specified in the bill.
Figures are difficult to come by, but as many as 70,000 illegal abortions are performed each year in Chile. However, few cases are actually brought before the courts. Advertisement
Guevara-Rosas added: “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 and that this reform opens the door for them to be able to fully enjoy their sexual and reproductive rights.”
Activists hope the Chile ruling will open the doors for a relaxation of laws in other countries. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Malta and Dominican Republic have outright bans on abortion.