Chile Makes History

After a decade of advocacy by the Center and partners, Chile is lifting its total abortion ban.

[UPDATE] In a monumental victory for women’s reproductive rights in Chile, the government’s Constitutional Tribunal voted to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, fatal fetal impairment, or when a woman’s life is in danger.

This bill reinstates a fundamental human right that Chilean women lost 28 years ago under the political and military rule of Augusto Pinochet, and was achieved by a hard-fought battle by dozens of Chilean organizations, activists and civil society organizations, and supported by the commitment of President Michelle Bachelet.

At hearings held by the Constitutional Tribunal a week before the ruling, the Center’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Catalina Martinez Coral, testified before the court in support of the abortion bill. We also submitted an amicus brief demonstrating that the legislation was is in line with international and comparative legal standards, and delivered more than 6,800 petition signatures from people around the world calling on the Tribunal to lift the abortion ban.

The Constitutional Tribunal vote was the final step to make legal abortion services a reality for the women and girls of Chile, and one we’ve been fighting for more than a decade. Now the bill will head to President Bachelet’s desk for her to sign into law.

Now Chile stands on the right side of history.

07.14.2017 - There are no words to describe having to carry an unviable pregnancy to term.

Just ask Paola Del Carmen Valenzuela, a Chilean woman who was forced to do just that under her country’s draconian abortion law which prohibits terminations under any circumstance—even in cases of rape or when the pregnancy endangers a woman’s life.

Chile and Suriname are the only two countries in South America that do not explicitly permit abortion in any circumstances, and nearly 200,000 unsafe abortions occur each year in Chile.

For Valenzuela, a 40-year-old microbiologist, it was her second pregnancy. At her first ultrasound she received the devastating news that the pregnancy had a fatal fetal impairment and would not survive. The condition, which causes limbs and other vital organs to become entangled, was so severe that shortly after gestation the fetus lost an arm.

Valenzuela was heartbroken, and at a loss of what to do. Her doctor recommended that she, “Pray, pray a lot.”

Of the experience Valenzuela recalls:

I felt that my son was dying and every day of pregnancy was torture. I was also afraid that a miscarriage would happen and I would be blamed.

At 14 weeks, after suffering substantial bleeding, she returned to the doctor and discovered the fetus’ heart was living outside of its body.

“At that point my son's condition was so horrible that [the doctor] would apologize to me for describing it,” she said. But still she was forced to continue with the pregnancy until, at 22 weeks, she began having contractions and delivered a dead fetus.

Valenzuela’s story is not unique. It represents just one of countless women in Chile who are unable to access safe and legal abortion care at home.

That’s why the Center for Reproductive Rights partnered with two local Chilean organizations, Miles Chile and the Isabel Allende Foundation, to testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the need to advance an abortion bill that would allow women to access safe and legal abortion services in the case of life-endangerment, sexual violence, and fatal fetal impairments. [Watch the video of the hearing here (Spanish).]

At the hearing, Valenzuela shared her painful story alongside renowned author and activist Isabel Allende who appeared via video message, pleading with the Commission to recommend that the Chilean government approve the new abortion bill:

As a woman, a mother and a grandmother, I defend the right to own my body. As president of my foundation, I know too well the dangers of illegal abortion. And as a Chilean citizen, I am aware that penalizing abortion affects mostly pregnant women and girls of lower income who cannot resort to expensive and discreet procedures.

The Center also demanded that the Commission declare Chile responsible for the human rights violations perpetrated against Valenzuela, and other women like her.

In the coming weeks, the Chilean government is anticipated to vote to advance a bill that could pave the way for the decriminalization of abortion in three cases: when a pregnancy pose a risk to a woman’s life, when a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or when a pregnancy is not viable due to a fatal fetal anomaly, as was the case with Valenzuela.

After the bill is voted at Congress, it will advance to the Constitutional Tribunal – the highest court in Chile. In an effort to ensure the bill gets signed into law, the Center is preparing to file an amicus brief that will advise the court on the right to abortion under international human rights law. This would be the first law of its kind in Chile to advance women’s reproductive rights on abortion.

It is imperative that Chile reform its abortion laws, and at the Center, we are committed to continuing to fight to protect the rights of Chilean women, and those of all women around the world.

“Far too many women like Valenzuela have suffered at the hands of the country’s blanket ban on abortion,” said Lilian Sepúlveda, Vice President of the Global Legal Program at the Center. “It is high time that the Chilean government change its restrictive abortion laws, and start protecting women’s reproductive rights.”

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