Chile’s abortion debate

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The World

SANTIAGO, Chile — Any day now, 23-year-old Karen Espindola will give birth to her first child. She knows he will probably not survive, and if he does, he will suffer severe malformations and cerebral defects.

Espindola wasn’t allowed to abort, and now she wants to sue the state for the agonizing nine months it put her through.

After Espindola’s baby was diagnosed in September with holoprosencephaly (a condition in which the brain doesn’t separate into two hemispheres), she decided that she didn’t want to give birth to a child likely to die in infancy.

A Catholic, Espindola made the difficult decision to abort. Only then did she discover that abortion even in special circumstances — such as when the mother’s life is in danger, the pregnancy is inviable, the baby has extreme health issues that would make survival unlikely, or in cases of rape — is illegal in Chile. She was outraged, and banged on all conceivable doors for help.

It was a losing battle.

Legal since 1931, abortion in these extreme circumstances was banned by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) just months before he relinquished power, making Chile one of only four countries in Latin America today where abortion is outlawed under any circumstance. During military rule, family planning programs in place since the mid-1960s were restricted or rolled back, and publicly-funded sex education was terminated. An era of moral conservatism cloaked the country, and words such as sex and abortion were hushed. Much of that feeling still lingers.

So what do women in Chile do in these circumstances? If they have money, they go to private clinics or doctors who practice abortions in safe, sanitized conditions. Or they may even pay for an air fare to the United States or a country where abortion is legal. Most, however, resort to unsafe clandestine abortions performed by people claiming to be midwives or doctors, paying anywhere between $500 and $1,000. And then there are those who concoct homemade solutions, using celery sticks, clothes hangers or knitting needles to provoke the loss of the fetus.

Of course, many of the women end up in the hospital. And that’s when doctors are faced with a dilemma: Should they preserve their patient’s confidentiality and privacy, or turn them over to the police as they are legally bound? Few call the police. Nonetheless, about 200 women have been arrested for having abortions in the past few years and are now on parole. A dozen are imprisoned.

Since there has been no available data on abortions in Chile since 1990, there is no real way of knowing how many take place each year. The only hint comes from the record of abortion-related hospitalizations, but this accounts just for cases in which something went wrong. The latest data from the Health Ministry showed more than 33,000 abortion-related hospitalizations in 2005. The real figure, experts agree, is closer to 140,000 — out of a population of about 5 million women of childbearing age.

“Women don’t abort because they feel like it,” said Adriana Gomez, coordinator of communications at the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network. “If the issue of abortion were to be discussed seriously in this country, people would realize that there are dramatic human and social aspects behind the decision to abort. But the political cost of discussing abortion is too high.”

Espindola was supported by women’s organizations, some legislators and even a couple of pro-choice Catholic groups. She was invited to present her case before the Health Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, and in October, she delivered a letter to President Michelle Bachelet, herself a doctor, asking to legalize abortion in cases such as hers. She never got a response. The governmental National Women’s Service (SERNAM) didn’t comment on the matter. When it comes to abortion, it never really has.

The Catholic Church here exerts heavy influence on politicians and government, and for right-wing legislators — who hold the key to any legal reforms — approving abortion in cases such as this is out of the question. They believe that this would pave the way to legalizing abortion altogether.

“For some, abortion is a right, but for us, it will always be a crime, and we will do everything in our power to keep it that way,” said lawmaker Jose Antonio Kast of the ultra-right-wing party UDI.

Since 1990, four abortion-related bills have been introduced in Congress. Another six bills on abortion and reproductive rights have been stagnant for years. But also making their way through Congress are several bills that would punish abortion even more harshly or raise the number of votes required to legalize it. Another three bills propose erecting monuments “for victims of abortion.”

Outside Congress the picture is completely different.

A nationwide poll conducted by the Humanas Corporation in mid-2008 showed that more than 75 percent of women surveyed are in favor of abortion in certain circumstances. Almost 70 percent said they wouldn’t vote for a candidate who opposed legalizing abortion when the mother’s life is in peril. 

Despite public opinion, “no one really wants to discuss it in-depth. It’s taboo, and the right-wing has it as its ideological, religious and political battle cry,” said Maria Antonieta Saa, of the center-left party PPD, and one of the promoters of a bill on sexual and reproductive rights introduced in Congress in 2000.

Now, Espindola is considering filing suit against the state for compensation. “If the state forces mothers to go through this, which is terrible, it should compensate them,” she said to the newspaper La Nacion.

Eight months pregnant and in very low spirits, Espindola declined an interview with GlobalPost. 

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