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Chile’s abortion rights movement faces uphill battle

Santiago, Chile – Siomara Molina stands on the steps of the Chilean National Library on a busy street in the heart of Chile’s capital.

Waving fists in the air and wearing green scarves, symbolic of the Latin American abortion rights movement, Molina and the dozens of women around her chant, “Abortion yes, abortion no, that’s my decision”.

Abortion is illegal in Chile, a traditionally Catholic country, except in three limited circumstances: non-viable pregnancies, rape, or risks to a mother’s health.

And years of pressure from human rights lawyers to loosen those restrictions suffered a major blow last year when Chileans rejected a new draft constitution that would have established reproductive health and bodily autonomy as fundamental rights.

But despite the setback, as an estimated 400,000 women gathered in Santiago and other cities this week to celebrate International Women’s Day, access to safe, free and legal abortion remains one of the key demands of the Chilean feminist movement.

“Today’s framework is one of the most restrictive in the world. It doesn’t give women the autonomy to make decisions,” says Molina, who is part of Chile’s largest feminist collective, Coordinadora Feminista 8M, which campaigns for a variety of gender equality goals.

“It is urgent to break the social stigma that we create actions that lead to dialogue and conversation,” she told Al Jazeera, reaffirming her belief in the power of protest. “The street is ours, and we will continue to protest.”

Demonstrators in Chile gather to protest for abortion rights, among other things, on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2023 (Charis McGowan/Al Jazeera)

Pinochet Legacy

This year is especially important in the fight for abortion rights in Chile, as 2023 marks 50 years since General Augusto Pinochet staged a bloody coup and seized power. During his 17-year rule, Pinochet forced conservative, Catholic values ​​on the country and in 1989, a year before his regime ended, banned abortion under all circumstances.

“The last thing Pinochet did was ban abortion, and since then there has been a series of violations against women and girls who cannot make decisions (about their own bodies),” Molina said. “We have tried to change the framework, but we live in a country shaped by the dictatorship.”

Yet Chileans have taken important steps over the past three years to disengage from the late dictator’s enduring influence on the country.

Triggered by rising living costs, Chile was rocked by months of unrest in 2019, when Pinochet’s persistent 1980 constitution was singled out as one of the root causes of a lack of social services and gaping inequality. The social mobilizations pressured politicians to allow a referendum in 2020 to rewrite the constitution, which nearly 80 percent of Chileans agreed to.

The first draft of the new text was written by 154 popularly elected representatives, who were largely independent and represented social and environmental movements, including members of Coordinadora Feminista 8M.

The result was a very forward-thinking draft constitution that sought to enshrine equality and a range of human rights, but was dismissed by critics as overambitious and complicated. Consequently, the first draft was deeply unpopular, with 62 percent of voters rejecting it in a general referendum in 2022.

“Women in the country have missed a huge opportunity,” said 19-year-old student Antonia, who was one of thousands of protesters demanding abortion rights at the Women’s Day March in Santiago on Wednesday, and Al Jazeera did not give her last name.

“Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it was a step in the right direction,” she said of last year’s proposed constitution. She said she knows many people who have resorted to at-home abortions using black market pills.

Between 2017, when the law with three exceptions on abortion was passed, to January 2022, only 2,313 legal abortions were officially registered in Chile, well below expectations. Reproductive rights advocates say people seeking abortion, even if their cases fall within the three allowable circumstances, continue to rely on underground networks because of stigma and judgment by medical professionals.

“The situation is complicated, expensive and people need support. Legal abortion is a real necessity,” said Antonia.

Conservative Parliament

Chile is currently drafting a second constitutional proposal. This time, however, political parties are leading the process and the outcome is expected to be more moderate, meaning reproductive rights can be left off the table.

For Molina and her colleagues, this is a worrying development: “There is a sense of hopelessness,” she said. “The 2022 draft opened a door (for us) through representation. Now (the process) is happening behind closed doors.”

So while Argentina and Colombia have passed laws to legalize abortion in recent years, the scenario in Chile remains uncertain. Despite having a pro-abortion government in power, parliament remains largely conservative.

In November 2021, delegates voted against a motion to decriminalize abortion up to 14 weeks gestation, with 62 delegates in favor and 65 against.

Chilean Women’s Affairs Minister Antonia Orellana admitted that the failure of the rejected constitution has set back a pledge by the government of left-wing President Gabriel Boric to legalize abortion. Speaking to CNN, she said the government plans to introduce a new motion, “but probably not this year.”

Meanwhile, a 2022 IPSOS study found that 61 percent of Chileans believe abortion should be legal within the first six weeks of pregnancy, though the number fell to 36 percent at the 14-week threshold.

“It will be difficult to pass (pro-abortion laws),” said Lieta Vivaldi, a lawyer and researcher specializing in sexual and reproductive rights at the Center for Applied Ethics of the University of Chile’s Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities.

She told Al Jazeera that while the three-condition law is “definitely inadequate,” it has also not been properly implemented by health professionals due to a lack of adequate training.

Protesters hold signs at a rally while sitting on the edge of a building
Abortion rights advocates suffered a setback last year when Chilean voters scrapped a draft constitution that would have enshrined reproductive rights (Charis McGowan/Al Jazeera)

Stigma still prevails among medical workers, who reserve the right to be “conscientious objectors” and refuse to perform abortions, even within the three permissible circumstances, based on their personal beliefs. A survey of 57 public hospitals last year found that up to 49 percent of employees surveyed would exercise this right.

Vivaldi added that there is not enough information available to the public about abortion. Against this background, she said the Women’s Day protests are “more important than ever” in destigmatizing the procedure.

“We have to march with our green scarves because we’ve all had abortions, or we know someone who’s had an abortion,” she said. “It is a reality in Chile. We are here and we have to keep fighting.”