Last Wednesday, Chilean lawmakers voted to ease the country’s strict abortion ban after a tense two-year long debate. After a 17-hour long session, senators approved the proposal, which decriminalizes abortion in the case of rape, if the fetus has a deadly defect, or if the mother’s life is at risk.
The vote is a triumph for President Michelle Bachelet, a pediatrician and long-time campaigner against the abortion ban. “It’s a historic morning,” Bachelet said in front of the presidential palace after the bill passed. “The Senate approved de-penalizing abortion in three cases, which means we can be a country where women can make the best decision possible when faced with such situations.”
Chile is part of a small group of socially conservative nations who have banned abortion under all circumstances. The ban was created in 1990 by Dictator Augusto Pinochet, coming at the tail end of his 17-year rule. Previous to this, Chile had permitted abortion for over 50 years in cases where the fetus was not viable or the mother was in danger.
“Today women recover a basic right that we should never miss: decide when we live moments of pain,” President Bachelet said in a tweet after the vote. Bachelet has been working to change abortion laws since 2015, shortly after she began her second term as Chile’s first female president. During her first term, Bachelet pushed for Plan B emergency contraceptives to be available for free at state-run hospitals. In 2011, Bachelet publicly supported abortion in the case of an 11-year old girl who was raped by her mother’s boyfriend; an incident that shook many of the country’s conservatives.
In addition, “A bill has been approved that opens up options for women,” said Claudia Pascual Grau, Chile’s Minister of Women and Gender Equity. “We have generated safe health benefits, an accompanying program that is with all women, regardless of the decision they take.”
Chilean pro-choice groups estimate that 60,000- 70,000 clandestine abortions are performed in Chile each year, often under unsafe conditions. Any participant in an abortion could face up to 15 years in prison under current law. According to human rights group, Miles Chile, over 500 people were charged from 2010-2014, 86% of which were women who had terminated their own pregnancies.
The bill will next move to the Constitutional Court for its final review. Conservative opposition hopes that the constitutional tribunal, which is made up of eight men and two women, will vote that the bill is unconstitutional. Conservative Senator Ena Von Baer warned that the bill denies protections to unborn children. “Our Constitution today protects the life of the unborn, so this bill violates the Constitution,” the organization said in a tweet.
Furthermore, the court can choose whether it wants to review the law as early as next week. If the court chooses not to, the new law will immediately take effect. If it decides to review the law, a decision must be made by August 28.
Meanwhile, Claudia Dides, Director of the advocacy group, Miles Chile, stated that “This is historic, a great triumph that will allow Chilean women to feel safe. We think that the Constitutional Court will solve this quickly because no one wants to see it becoming tangled in the political agenda for the next presidential election.”