Is This the End of One of the World’s Harshest Abortion Laws?

For the first time, two women are battling for Chile’s highest office—and reproductive rights hang in the balance.
Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet of the New Majority coalition delivers a speech during her closing campaign rally in Santiago on November 14. She's proposed easing abortion restrictions. (Reuters)

In July, a harrowing story dominated headlines in Chile: "Belen," an 11-year-old girl from the southern city of Puerto Montt, had been raped and impregnated by her mother's partner—and was not legally permitted to have an abortion. Belen vowed on television to have the baby. Chile's president praised her "depth and maturity." Outraged pro-abortion activists ransacked a cathedral in the capital, Santiago.

Now, four months later, the country is once again at a crossroads on abortion. On November 17, for the first time in history, Chileans will cast ballots in a presidential election where the top two candidates are women—not to mention childhood playmates with a turbulent past. And the outcome of the race could have major implications for reproductive rights in one of the few countries in the world where getting an abortion can still land you in jail.

The frontrunner in the contest, Michelle Bachelet, is a pediatrician-turned-Socialist Party politician and former president, while her most formidable challenger, Evelyn Matthei, is an economist belonging to the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI). They’re childhood friends whose fathers, both air force generals, were stationed at the same base in the desert of northern Chile in the 1950s (the two girls could often be spotted running around and biking together). In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup ousted the democratically elected Salvador Allende, and placed Bachelet and Matthei on opposite sides of the country’s bitter political divide.

Bachelet’s father, Alberto, was charged with treason for his support of Allende and brought to the air force academy, where he was tortured and interrogated; in 1974, he died of heart problems induced by torture in a public prison in Santiago. Matthei’s father Fernando, meanwhile, was promoted to commander-in-chief of the regime’s air force and directed the very academy where Alberto was tortured. In an even more dramatic twist, this July, 40 years after Pinochet’s coup, the human rights lawyer Eduardo Contreras sought, unsuccessfully, to bring the 88-year old Fernando to trial, arguing that there was new evidence to prove he knew about Alberto’s death.

It’s a backstory that has complicated people’s interpretation of the historic gender dynamic at play in this year’s election. Some argue that having two female frontrunners is symbolic of broader social change in Chile, and an important step towards gender equality. Others discount this as wishful thinking, citing the continued dominance of men in the country’s politics, and the candidates’ political pedigrees. “It’s a party system that’s dominated not just by men but patriarchs,” says Lessie Jo Frazier, a professor at Indiana University who researches gender and political culture in the Americas. “Bachelet and Matthei are women whose political positions are defined as daughters of important men, and important military men.”

There is “something sexist about saying that the candidates are two women,” Bachelet remarked in August. “I am delighted that women are participating in politics and I will continue to promote this, but make no mistake, this campaign is about two very different visions of this country.”

It’s also about two dramatically different visions for women’s reproductive rights. While Chile has gained global recognition for its competitive economy— in 2012, the country attracted $28 billion in foreign direct investment and saw its GDP grow by more than five percent—it lags behind many of its less prosperous neighbors when it comes to reproductive rights. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, it is one of 29 countries in the world that ban abortion without any explicit exceptions. In the Latin America and Caribbean region, it is one of only five countries—the others being the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua—where abortion is absolutely prohibited, even when it could save a woman's life.

It wasn’t always this way. Between 1931 and 1989, therapeutic abortion—ending a pregnancy when a woman’s life or health is in danger, for instance, or when the fetus has no chance of survival if carried to term—was legal in Chile. But in 1989, in one of Pinochet’s final legislative acts before the country’s transition to democracy, all forms of abortion were criminalized. Under that law, which hasn’t changed to this day, women found guilty of having an abortion or doctors found guilty of inducing an abortion can be sentenced to three to five years in prison.

The legislation has remained in place even as countries around the world have eased restrictions on abortion. The Center for Reproductive Rights reports that over 60 percent of the world’s population now lives in countries where abortion is generally permitted, and that more than 25 countries have liberalized their abortion laws in the past two decades.

Chile’s neighbors are part of this trend. In the spring of 2012, for instance, Argentina’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling that decriminalized abortion in the case of rape. That fall, Uruguay passed a law that decriminalized abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy for any reason, but mandated that women must have a consultation with a gynecologist, psychologist, and social worker before a doctor can perform the abortion.

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Erica Hellerstein is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California.

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