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.

But Chile is not Uruguay or Argentina. It is one of the most socially conservative countries in Latin America, with high levels of religiosity and more than 70 percent of the population identifying as Roman Catholic (divorce wasn’t even legal in the country until 2005). Historically isolated as a result of the jagged Andes mountain range, Chile has long had less immigration than some of its neighbors and a strong upper class with ties to the powerful Catholic Church—not to mention nearly two decades of dictatorship at a time when the women’s rights movement was gaining traction around the world.

On October 27, however, Bachelet released a 200-page policy platform confirming her position on key issues including education reform, tax reform, and the drafting of a new constitution (the current one was written under Pinochet’s dictatorship).

Buried deep in the proposal, on page 169, Bachelet outlined plans to decriminalize abortion under certain circumstances for the first time in decades. “We will promote policies to reinforce women’s autonomy,” the platform declared. “This includes … the decriminalization of voluntary interruption of pregnancy in cases of danger to the mother’s life, rape or unviability of the fetus.”

“The fact that Bachelet is now, her second time around, putting [abortion exceptions] in her program is really a signal,” says Merike Blofield, a professor of political science at the University of Miami. “Public opinion has always been slightly more liberal than the laws. Bachelet must perceive that she has enough social support … to bring the abortion proposal forward.”

Experts often say that there is a pronounced class dimension to abortion in Chile. Poor women who don’t have the financial means to get safe abortions and have less access to information are more likely to wind up in the hospital—and in trouble—after a risky procedure. “The women who end up going to jail are poor, and often young,” says Gloria Maira, a member of the Chilean women’s group Feminist Articulation for the Right to Choose. “They’re the ones who go to the hospital for abortion complications,” where doctors can then report them to the authorities. As a result, many poor women see hospitalization as a gamble, and are wary of seeking medical assistance when procedures go awry.

According to a 2006 study in the Chilean Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, abortion was the third-leading cause of maternal mortality in Chile from 2000 to 2004 and accounted for 12 percent of all maternal deaths. Though accurate statistics are hard to come by, a 1994 study by the Guttmacher Institute estimated that there are around 160,000 clandestine abortions performed in Chile per year, in a country with a population of 17 million, and a 1997 paper in Reproductive Health Matters found that most of the 80 women in the study who were prosecuted in Santiago for having abortions were single mothers or domestic workers.

During this year’s presidential campaign, Matthei and Bachelet have been painted as almost perfect foils. But Matthei hasn’t always opposed abortion. While serving as a senator in 2010, she joined the Socialist Party Senator Fulvio Rossi to co-sponsor an unsuccessful proposal to decriminalize therapeutic abortion.

Since entering the presidential race, however, Matthei’s stance on abortion has shifted dramatically. In response to Bachelet’s policy proposal in October, Matthei said that she won’t support any legislation to decriminalize abortion, and was called an “absolute defender of life” by UDI President Patricio Melero.

Polls have pegged Bachelet as the overwhelming favorite in the race, which means her proposal could very well be implemented if she’s able to muster enough legislative support once in office. If Bachelet’s coalition doesn’t win big in this weekend’s general election, however, it will be difficult to pass the proposed legislation.

Still, Bachelet seems well-positioned to move her abortion reforms forward. During her first term as president from 2006 to 2010, she enacted controversial legislation that made emergency contraception available to women and girls aged 14 and older for no cost at public hospitals. When her term ended (in Chile, presidents cannot serve consecutive terms), she headed UN Women, a leg of the United Nations dedicated to promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment (in 2011, reproductive health advocates chided Bachelet after the agency issued a “Progress of the World’s Women” Strategic Plan that did not promote the legalization of abortion).

And Bachelet appears to have shifting Chilean public opinion on her side—at least when it comes to decriminalizing abortion for medical reasons. A poll conducted in 2008 by the NGO Corporación Humanas found that 79 percent of Chilean women favored decriminalizing abortion when the life of the pregnant woman is at risk, while 74 percent believed abortion should be permitted in cases of rape and 70 percent said it should be decriminalized for fetal unviability. In 2005, the same poll found that those percentages were 67, 56, and 58, respectively.

Bachelet’s policy proposal, Frazier says, is “still very much the doctor taking care of the patient. It’s that part of her public persona. I don’t think this is outside of her general political and social philosophy.”

But others take issue with that philosophy. Bachelet’s proposal is “restrictive” and “not what a lot of feminists had hoped for,” says Maria Isabel Matamala Vivaldi, a doctor based in Santiago. “It’s a tiny advance for 23 years of democracy.”

Vivaldi and others argue that while decriminalizing abortion in the three cases outlined by Bachelet moves Chilean law toward the international mainstream, legalizing abortion in the cases of rape and when a woman’s health is at risk will only address a small percentage of abortions performed in Chile annually. The broader public health problems associated with secret abortions, the socioeconomic impact of poor women seeking unsafe operations, and questions surrounding women’s sexual autonomy and right to choose will not be answered by Bachelet’s policy proposal.

“My vision for a democracy means that abortion under any circumstance is a woman’s decision,” Maira says.