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Chile: Extreme anti-abortion law creates climate of fear and substandard health care for women

    September 28, 2015

    Released 28 September 2015, 00:01 Mexico time (05:00 GMT)

    Chile’s draconian anti-abortion law is treating women as second-class citizens and putting their lives and health at risk, said Amnesty International amid a heated congressional debate to modify the legislation.

    “Chile’s outrageous abortion ban creates a climate of fear among health professionals whose first thought is often to report a woman or a girl to the police for a suspected abortion rather than give them life-saving treatment. It creates a two-tiered health system in which women are seen as mere child-bearing vessels,” said Fernanda Doz Costa, Researcher on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the Americas at Amnesty International.

    “Chile must finally move away from this draconian Pinochet-era prohibition. The evidence is clear that banning abortions in all circumstances does not stop abortions from happening. All it does is to force women and girls, particularly those with few resources, to seek back-door dangerous treatments that put their lives at risk. Though still limited, the Bill that is currently under discussion may become an important first step in the right direction.”

    Under Chile’s anti-abortion law, passed in 1989 during the final stages of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal regime, abortion is illegal even when the life or the health of the woman or girl is at risk and when the pregnancy is a result of rape. President Bachelet sent a Bill to Congress to reintroduce exceptions to this total ban when the life of the woman or girl is at risk, when the pregnancy is a result of rape and when the foetus is not viable.

    The ban effectively forces many women to seek unsafe abortions.

    According to the Ministry of Health, in Chile more than 33,000 women are admitted to hospital every year for abortion-related causes. Many of these are related to complications arising from unsafe abortions.

    Of these, more than a tenth (3,600) are young girls and teenagers of between 10 and 19 years of age. However, the real number is likely to be much higher.

    Chile’s Public Prosecutor’s Office reported that in 2014 alone, judicial investigations were initiated into 174 cases of voluntary abortion involving 113 women.

    Amnesty International has identified dozens of cases of women who were denied life-saving abortions even when they needed cancer treatment or when the foetus was not viable.

    Tania (not her real name) was a 31-year-old woman and a mother of three young children when she became pregnant in the middle of her cancer treatment. Continuing with the pregnancy would have meant putting her own life in danger by stopping the treatment. The doctor treating her warned her that if she had an abortion, he would have to report her. Tania decided to have the abortion in a private clinic, where the procedure was registered as a gynecological operation.

    She told Amnesty International: “They never saw me as a person, as a whole human being. They saw me as an incubator, someone who could bring children into this world. And afterwards, it didn’t matter if I raised them or not, if I died, if we went hungry. They see us as incubators. As machines, machines for reproduction.”

    René Castro, an obstetrician, described another case in which a woman was made to wait until the end of her pregnancy despite knowing that the child would die in the first 24 hours, because of a fatal condition it had.

    “She told me how painful it was for her to have to wait for nine months to deliver her child, knowing that he would die in the first 24 hours, which is what in fact happened. What was worse was that she did not have anyone to support her emotionally, to protect her at least from the impact of this,” said Dr Castro.

    Chile is one of only five countries in the Americas – including El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua – that ban abortions in all circumstances, or to lack an explicit legal exception to save the life of the woman. The Dominican Republic, which also had total ban on abortion, introduced modifications to its Penal Code in December 2014 to include the same three exceptions being discussed in Chile.  

    Other countries in the region, including Paraguay, have exceptions to the criminalization of abortion when the life of the woman or girl is in danger but those are often ignored by health professionals.

    On 28 September people around the world will mark the International Day for Decriminalization of Abortion.

    “We are raising our voices, together with many others in the region, to remind States that the decriminalization of abortion is a human rights imperative, a commitment to women and girls’ rights to life and health,” said Fernanda Doz Costa.  

    “To legalize abortion is an essential requirement for countries to guarantee equality for women. The fact is that Indigenous women, Afro-descendants, and those living in poverty or with fewer opportunities are disproportionately represented among these women and girls who die or are severely affected by unsafe abortions.”

    Read more:
    Chile Failure to protect women and girls: The criminalization of abortion is a human rights violation (Report, June 2015)


    For more information, please contact Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, Media Relations 416-363-9933 ext 332