The Impact Of The Presidential Election On Abortion Laws In Chile

On December 17th, 2017, billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera was elected as President of Chile. Pinera is a member of the National Renewal political party, which is a liberal conservative party. Such a party combines liberal and conservative stances, with the conservative stances largely influencing social and ethical concerns.

One such issue is abortion, which the majority of liberal conservatives oppose. In August of this year, Chile’s Constitutional Court lifted the nation’s complete ban on abortion. In a 6-4 vote, the judges ruled it was constitutional for women to obtain abortions in three scenarios: if there is a danger to the mother’s life, the fetus has a terminal condition, or if the woman in question is raped (although abortion, in this case, is only allowed in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy). This ruling was a landmark decision, as previous reform failed due to the fact that the “right to life” of “those about to be born” is explicitly written in Chile’s Constitution, establishing a challenge for those working to simultaneously respect a woman’s right to choose.

The original ban was put in place in 1989 under General Augusto Pinochet, widely regarded as a dictator. This changed the original 1931 law which allowed abortion for medical reasons. Due to Pinera’s political party, personal stance on abortion, and reports that some of his backers hope he will reverse the Constitutional Court’s ruling, a number of women’s rights group are concerned about the impact his presidency will have on the nation.

Pinera’s stance on abortion is pro-life. In 2013, when abortion was fully banned in Chile, Pinera praised an 11-year-old child who had been raped and subsequently impregnated, calling her “mature and brave” according to BBC. While campaigning, he went on the record, stating, “[The state’s role is to] always favour everyone’s life, most especially the life of the unborn boy or girl, who is an absolutely defenceless creature and a totally innocent person.”

However, he has been more tight-lipped about specific plans on how to undertake the new abortion law, simply saying he plans to “review and perfect” the nation’s abortion law in order to support and protect the “vulnerable” throughout their pregnancies.

Pinera does not currently hold a majority in either the Chilean Congress or Senate. As such, his chances of being able to immediately change the law when he takes office come March are slim to none. However, according to Augusto Quintana, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chile, there are other avenues Pinera can explore in order to limit the effect of the new law.

Quintana told Al Jazeera, “The most likely, is that he will establish some restrictions or additional requirements to the practice of abortion in public hospitals or, in private hospitals – whose institutional policies allow abortion.” Such actions would create undue obstacles for women looking to obtain an abortion.

It does not help that there is a precedent for adjustments to the law. Earlier this year, the Catholic Church within the nation lobbied for an amendment to the bill, allowing medical professionals to refuse to carry out abortions for moral or ethical reasons. Such provisions limit the number of professionals available and make it easier for those willing to carry out abortions to be intimidated to refuse.

Humans Right Watch (HRW) has stated Pinera is expected to push an anti-abortion, pro-life agenda. Moreso, they anticipate Pinera will receive strong support within the predominantly-Catholic Chile, which has a number of groups working to repeal the law. One such group is Save the 1, an international organization working to outlaw abortion.

Fabiola Torres, Save the 1’s Latin America Director, called the law a “big step back.” Furthermore, she stated, “We believe in dignity and the right to life for all human beings, independent of how they came into existence. We want to show that these ‘circumstances’ are human beings who need protection and support.” On social media, the organization has voiced their hopes that “Sebastian Pinera … who claims to be pro-life will act accordingly and take steps to repeal the nefarious abortion under three circumstances law.”

However, other groups around the world uphold that a woman’s right to choose trumps the rights of unborn children. Leticia Zenevich, a human rights lawyer and coordinator with Women on Waves, an NGO which provides safe access to abortions for women, told Al Jazeera, “It’s a very good law and the social movements fought very hard to get it, but we also know that it’s not enough.”

Despite this, the law does not go far enough. Zenevich stated, “We’ve exchanged more than 15,000 emails with women in Chile this year and received more than 1,500 requests for abortion medicines, but only a few [of these women] will fit into the three circumstances,” she said. To her, and millions of others around the world, until safe and unfettered access to abortion is guaranteed for all women, there will always be more work to be done. Regardless of one’s personal political view, the world and Chile are waiting with baited breath to see Pinera’s plans for Chile and abortion within the nation.

Jordan Meyerl