"The Law Protects the Life of the Unborn"

 /  Nov. 15, 2015, 1:22 p.m.


If you had been driving on Chile's Route 63 out of the capital city of Santiago at the end of September, you would have seen a massive billboard displaying an image of prisoners detained in the country’s national football stadium after the 1973 coup d’etat.  There, they were beaten, tortured, and shot to death. Some were then infamously tossed into the sea, so that they could be classified as "disappeared"  rather than "dead."

"ABORTION is torture, death and disappearance," the advertisement proclaims in bold text, deploying the same rhetoric used to describe the gross human rights violations committed by  Augusto Pinochet's military regime.

"What the propaganda did was make it [seem] as if abortion were torture, a crime against human rights," Sebastián Soto, a student of philosophy and social work at my university here in Santiago, tells me about the advertisement. "Many people see this [...] and are going to say 'I am also committing a human rights violation' [if I have an abortion]."

In the United States, the abortion debate centers around federal attempts to defund organizations like Planned Parenthood and the possibility of a Republican victory in 2016 further restricting women's abortion rights, paving the way to overturn Roe v. Wade. In Chile, the situation is markedly different, owing to the fact that its abortion laws are some of the strictest in the world. Chile is one of four countries in the world that prohibits and criminalizes, without exception, all circumstances of abortion. In this South American nation, performing an abortion is punishable by up to three years in prison. Having an abortion is punishable by up to five.

But Chile's president, Michelle Bachelet, has long favored reforming the law, and in January of this year, she proposed a bill to decriminalize abortion in three cases: when the mother's life is at risk, when the fetus is determined to be inviable (unable to survive once born), and in cases of rape. On September 15, abortion in the third case, rape, was approved by the Health Commission of Chile’s Chamber of Deputies. The bill must now pass through the Constitutional and Finance Commissions before being voted on by the Chamber of Deputies in its entirety, after which it needs to be approved by Chile's Senate. In short, there is still a long way for the bill to go to become legalized, and the vote has been further postponed due to a lack of urgency compared to other government projects. Nonetheless, since the bill's success in the Health Commission in September, Chileans have began to take its ratification as a significant and serious possibility.

Life begins at the moment of conception: a religious idea?

Studying this semester at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, an intense debate immediately became apparent to me—if not in the political graffiti on Santiago's streets, then in Católica’s student Facebook group. After a bout of heavy rainstorms three weeks after I arrived in Chile, screenshots of a tweet composed by a law professor at my university surfaced: "the rain is the clamor of the heavens for the innocents who will die if the legalization of abortion is consolidated." A month later, as the Syrian refugee crisis gained worldwide attention and an image of a drowned child on a beach circulated throughout global media, another professor tweeted: "The image of the Syrian boy. Brutal, right? Tell me how someone could be in favor of abortion."

In another post, Universidad Católica's student federation (FEUC) shared the open petition they wrote to the members of Chile's Congress, asking them to vote against the decriminalization of abortion. The petition now has over 8,000 signatures, but was met with aversion from students like Lya Rogers, a first year planning to study sociology. Rogers tells me that she doesn't feel like the university provides spaces to discuss abortion in a free manner: even Facebook, in her opinion, tends to back the stance of authority.  

As a Catholic university with a close relationship to the Vatican, Universidad Católica is institutionally opposed to abortion. Chile has historically been a country heavily influenced by Roman Catholicism: divorce, for example, was legalized only in 2004 amidst continued opposition from the Church. When I asked Rogers if she thought the current abortion ban in Chile owed itself to Catholic influence, she responded, "Definitely."

Klaus Franz, a medical student at Chile's other major university, Universidad de Chile, expounds on the subject. "It is a religious idea [...] that life begins at the moment of conception," he says. "I come from a university that is pretty progressive." Universidad de Chile, a public institution unlike Universidad Católica, is reputed to be more left-of-center on the political spectrum. "But the ethics and the bioethics are still pretty conservative. [They] are strongly linked to Catholicism."

Sebastián Soto offers me a similar explanation: "In [our] society, abortion is condemned or rejected to a great extent by the actions of the Catholic Church." Of course, the Catholic influence has been particularly strong in Latin America since the Church launched its mission of evangelization in pre-colonial times. But Soto is critical of those who hold the belief that life begins at conception,yet fail to analyze or question the reasons behind it. "They start off from an argument that isn't proven," he says. "In biology, there isn't agreement about when life starts, and not in philosophy either." Soto himself is a practicing Catholic, but favors decriminalizing abortion.

Antonia Muñoz, a medical student at Universidad Católica, disagrees: "We [the medical field at Católica] consider that from the moment of conception, we have a human individual. [...] There is no doubt about this. The arguments to back that up are biological, not theological." She also refers to philosophical arguments: "I am the same person, in the moment that I was born, as when I am a child, adult, grandmother. [...] There are physical changes in me, but I don't change my essence. [...] This is transversal, that you exist, and have existed since the moment of conception." In her view, an individual exists from that moment, "and it is our obligation to protect this individual." Muñoz says that although she is Catholic, she has not always held this belief: only after studying medicine and working with mothers who had had inviable pregnancies did she form her current point of view.

Antonia Mayo, a fifth year political science student and FEUC board member, insists that her personal conviction that life begins from the moment of conception does not stem from religious beliefs or scientific reasons. "For me, the argument against abortion has nothing to do with religion," she says. "It is a topic of human dignity, philosophy, and anthropology." She emphasizes that FEUC's petition to Congress provides no religious argument.

Some do, however, question the religious argument. Earlier this year, a Chilean priest named Felipe Berríos challenged the Catholic idea that a human soul exists from the moment of conception. "What happens, then, with identical twins?" he asked. "Do I share a soul with my brother?"

When I first emailed Muñoz, the medical student, with the knowledge that she had participated in faith-based organizations on campus, I asked if she would be able to explain her stance as a Catholic. In her reply, she clarified: "My position isn't Catholic. It is a position based on medical, philosophical and bioethical arguments."

But those arguments can be Catholic, too.

"You would think that women would best represent women's interests"

Although Catholicism has historically  had a great influence on Chilean society, the total ban on abortion has not always been in place. Therapeutic (medically justified) abortion was permitted from 1931 until 1989, but the law was changed during the final years of Pinochet's authoritarian regime. "The dictatorship represented a reconversion to the more traditional moral values of Chilean life," Klaus Franz explains to me. The total ban implemented in 1989 was largely the task of a deeply Catholic constitutional lawyer named Jaime Gúzman, who once stated, "The mother is always obligated to have her child, in all circumstances [...] The mother should have her child even if it will come out abnormal, even if she does not want it, even if it is the product of rape or, even by having it, she will die."

Chile's constitution specifies that "the law protects the life of the unborn," but the constitution currently in force was implemented in 1980, also under Pinochet's dictatorship. "This constitution has not been changed," Rogers tells me, save for a few amendments. "I think that this has greatly affected [our] freedom [and our] rights."  Aside from the thousands of prisoners tortured and executed during the regime, the military dictatorship also imposed various repressive measures, such as a nightly curfew and restrictions on free speech. While these measures no longer exist, many of the political and economic structures—and attitudes and mindsets—still do.

While the Catholic convictions espoused by those with political power and influence during Pinochet’s regime were undoubtedly the basis for the abortion ban, some anti-abortion arguments given by today’s politicians hint at different sentiments. "There are women who have sex because, maybe, they had one too many drinks: is this rape, too?" a member of Chile's Congress asked. Another declares, "There are rapes that are violent and others that are not violent." Yet another: "A woman [...] lends her body, throughout pregnancy, to the life that is growing in there. [...] A woman who lends her body does not have the right to a therapeutic abortion."

"What is there behind all of these affirmations?" Soto asks in an  op-ed he wrote for Universidad Católica’s student newspaper. His answer is mistrust toward the ideology of gender. Instead of recognizing that "society has been unjust toward women throughout history and [needs] to make amends for this injustice," many continue to adhere to a perspective  which denies women their intelligence and autonomy and suggests that they "would have free and irresponsible sex and have abortions [like] a sport" if it was legal. Chile's politics, he concludes, are affected by machismo: a cultural ideology that stresses masculine power and, as a result, imposes rigid gender roles and perpetrates violence against women in Latin American society.

When I asked Franz if he thought machismo contributed to anti-abortion attitudes, he replied that while he definitely associated other things, like the lack of women in the work force, to machismo, he could not say the same for abortion. Machismo, he says, "is not as anti-abortion as is religion." But according to Soto, machismo "permeates distinct social realities"; of these, he specifically mentions Congress, the democratic system, and the Church. Undoubtedly, the three quotes from members of Chile's Congress are proof of machismo ideals permeating politics. Surprisingly, however, two of those declarations came from female politicians. Machismo is not just the attitudes of men used as a mechanism to oppress women: it is something that has permeated the whole of society, both genders alike. When president Michelle Bachelet was running for her first term in office, one of Chile's former presidents, Eduardo Frei, was asked if Chile would elect a woman president. He replied: "Difficult. It is that we are very machista...and the women are even more machista than the men."

Chile's Congress is only 15.8% female; according to Soto, "today in 2015 [...] the culture of our political system still views women as at the service of others, others who have to speak for them." He explains that the Congresswomen quoted above are from the political right and hold positions that are highly contested, even by men. As a result, Soto concludes, they must be committed to a conservative line of thought in order to keep their positions. Conservative thought, in Chile, generally views women as subordinate to men. "You would think that the women would best represent women's interests," he suggests. Yet clearly, this is not always the case.

So, while machismo itself cannot be solely credited for the anti-abortion posture in Chile, it is not entirely separable from the subject, either: instead, it is quite possible that machista ideals will hinder the passage of Bachelet’s bill, especially if politicians, female and male alike, cast their votes, as Soto suggests, based on ideas of women having "free and irresponsible sex."

 Pro-"life"? Taking responsibility for public health 

"I know a friend who had an abortion," Lya Rogers, the sociology student, tells me. "We were able to get the pill and do it, but it was super difficult." She mentions that they were able to find a manual to help them, but were nonetheless scared that something would go wrong. "If we had to go to a medical center for assistance, they could have arrested us," she says.

According to Franz, studies estimate that between 50,000 and 150,000 clandestine abortions take place each year in Chile. Mayo, however, considers these statistics to be largely unreliable. "I don't deny that there are cases, but [these numbers] are used a bit to sensitize people on the topic," she says. "Chile, after Canada, is the country with the lowest maternal mortality rate in all of the Americas, including the United States." Also acknowledging Chile's low maternal mortality rate, Franz offers the possibility that clandestine abortion today is generally safe, in contrast with the cases of septic abortions infamous for filling up hospitals in the 70s. "But this trivializes the problem," he continues, "because in the day-to-day, there are a lot [of clandestine abortions]." According to Chile’s Ministry of Health, abortion is nonetheless the third-highest cause of maternal mortality in the country.

Rogers recalls that when her friend had an abortion, obtaining the pill was extremely expensive. "If abortion becomes legal, it really won't be made legal," she says. "It will be made legal only for those who can access the resources." Even today, Soto asserts, the cost of a safe procedure is extremely high, so women and girls with less resources often undergo procedures that put their health at risk. Earlier this year, a video campaign surfaced in Chile showcasing "tutorials" on how to self-induce abortions, including throwing oneself down a stairwell and into traffic, in an attempt to raise awareness of the dangerous reality of clandestine abortions. Nonetheless, Franz maintains that looking at statistics, the public health argument to legalize abortion doesn't hold the most weight. The risk undoubtedly exists, but perhaps the illegal practices are generally secure, the statistics on clandestine abortions misleadingly high, or Chilean women generally lucky.

In its open petition to Congress, FEUC argues that "abortion will never be a legitimate option [...] abortion doesn't solve anything." But is there a solution to the fact that women and girls put their health and lives at risk to avoid motherhood? Mayo offers one: "I believe that the solution [...] is to accompany women who have a difficult pregnancy, to give them all available services of support: not only when they are having their child, but afterward, to care for it." At Universidad Católica, FEUC proposed such a program this year called Humanizar. One of its aims is to support mothers and fathers who attend the university, of which there are about 1500, by providing them with postnatal and child care, medical coverage, and more academic flexibility, so that having a child is less of a barrier to completing one's studies. According to Mayo, only 16% of Chilean students who became parents during adolescence have entered or completed higher education.

How about the three difficult cases for which Bachelet’s reform seeks to provide abortion as an option? For Muñoz, they still do not justify abortion. "We always consider ourselves as having two patients during a pregnancy," she explains: the mother, and the child. In this manner, she compares the second case (fetal inviability) to that of a terminal cancer patient: although the patient's death is inevitable, doctors have no right to decide when the patient will die. (Muñoz also clarifies that in these cases, the child often lives days, weeks, or even months after birth.)

I ask if the mental health of the mother is a consideration, and Muñoz tells me about a program at Universidad Católica's medical center she has worked in called Acompañar-es. In this program, mothers are provided with doctors, psychologists, physiotherapists, midwives, and spiritual support from the moment of diagnosis, not only to help them accept the death of their child, but also to give them the chance to be a mother. They are encouraged to name, take photos of, and baptize their child after birth. Muñoz reports that Acompañar-es, which has had about 26 patients, has so far been a success. In contrast with studies which suggest that mothers who decide to abort an inviable fetus often struggle with mental health issues afterward,none of the 26 mothers involved in the Acompañar-es program showed signs of depression or post-traumatic stress six months after their children's deaths. . "All of them referred to their experience as very strengthening, and many ended up having more children afterward," Muñoz tells me.

The Humanizar proposal also seeks to extend the Acompañar-es program to victims of rape. According to Muñoz, most cases of rape in Chile occur in repeated cycles of violence from a familiar figure such as a boyfriend, husband, or stepfather. "Eliminating the child will only perpetuate this cycle of violence and hide what is happening in the family," she says. Again, therefore, she is firm in her belief that the best solution is to provide accompaniment and support to the victim instead of eliminating "an individual not at fault." Muñoz mentions that there are already some existing support programs in Chile which have been largely well-received, but both she and Mayo hope to extend Universidad Católica's programs and initiatives to Chile's public health system so that these services would be freely available to all.

Nonetheless, for some, there are still reasons to justify abortion as an option:  Bachelet’s reform specifically mentions the protection of children and adolescents. In 2013, an 11-year-old girl known as "Belén" sparked an intense international debate when she became pregnant after being raped by her stepfather. Despite the fact that the pregnancy posed a high risk to her health and her child's health, she was denied the option of an abortion. Belén was later praised by the president, Sebastian Piñera, for showing "depth and maturity" when she appeared on national television and declared that she would have the baby and would "love it very much, even though it came from the man that hurt me."

According to Soto, while the right-wing "speaks as if they are in favor of life,"they are often "just in favor of birth." “Pro-life,” in other words, is something of a misnomer if it means forcing women to give birth without providing them support or guaranteeing that the children born will be raised in suitable conditions.

However, Mayo acknowledges that it makes little sense to be against abortion but abandon mothers who are having a difficult time or don't want their children. Last year, the Gate asked if a pro-life feminism is possible: instead of undergoing a difficult and historically oppressive procedure, could changes be made so that having a child is no longer a hindrance to mothers? In that same line of thought, FEUC's petition asks Chile's Congress not just to reject the decriminalization of abortion, but also to "take responsibility for supporting women and families who have complicated pregnancies." Perhaps this is one manner in which Chile could become what the petition deems a "society that always respects the life and dignity of all."

When asked about cases where pregnancy is a risk to the mother's health, Muñoz says that if terminating a pregnancy is the only option to save the mother's life, then it is already permitted and will be done. Although Muñoz and the text of the reform itself both mention that the current law is unclear, in Muñoz’s opinion, there is no real reason to legalize  these cases, since a pregnancy will already be terminated if it is determined to be necessary to save the mother’s life. Abortion, on the other hand, is defined as an act with the express intention to eliminate the child, not to save the mother's life: this, for Muñoz, is never justified.

A changing Chile?

"If it were a matter of public opinion," Rogers says, "abortion would be legalized,"  with polls suggesting that over 70% of Chileans support the reform project. Franz tells me that the case to decriminalize abortion is today viewed primarily as a matter of women's rights. The Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECh), a student organization representing nearly all Chilean universities, writes in its declaration of support for the reform that it would allow for the advancement "of sexual, reproductive, and health-related human rights: rights that for years have been denied to women."

President Bachelet, upon release of the reform proposal, stated, "When [a woman's] decision is to not continue a pregnancy [in one of the three cases], the State should offer alternatives founded on [her] rights, dignity, and protection of her life." However, while Muñoz acknowledges that "women obviously have sexual and reproductive rights," she believes that these rights only include the use of contraceptive methods, stopping short of abortion. She asks me where I stand on the abortion issue, and I tell her my honest answer: I wouldn't want to be a mother right now and if I hypothetically were to become pregnant, I would want the choice to not become one. "You can't say that you don't want to be a mother," she replies, laughing, "because [in that situation] you already are a mother!"

Franz says that while one consideration is the woman's right to choose, another is whether motherhood is economically feasible. "It doesn't make sense to conceive a child if that child is born without the minimum conditions to survive afterward," he says. "In a country that has profound inequalities, this factor of condition of life is a problem." This is unquestionably the case in Chile, where income inequality levels are among the highest in the world. "We can't obligate someone to be a mother or father knowing that in our immensely unequal country, raising a child is very difficult today," Soto adds, specifically in the context of the profound inequalities in Chile's health and education sectors.

The current reform project would, of course, only allow cancelling maternity in the three exceptional instances, of which there are very few cases in Chile to begin with. Rogers, who is in favor of free abortion, nonetheless affirms the project: "I believe the three cases are a start," he says. Franz would be in favor of free abortion with a gestational limit of about twelve weeks, which he clarifies as the point of sensibility. "For me," he explains, "it is a topic of humaneness, of suffering, of the possibility of hurting another; [...] the ethics of pain, not of life."  

Surely, there will always be disagreement, and Soto presents a final argument on that account. "In a pluralistic society, we should be conscious that there are disagreements between reasonable people," he writes. "Recognizing that, does it seem fair to prohibit this legal initiative [the reform]? The state does not look to impose a determined decision [...] but – recognizing the diversity of values in a democratic society – looks to allow women, in conformity with their principles and convictions, to be free to consider alternatives to an extremely painful situation." In other words, as he says to me later, "many times we forget that there are people who don't think like we do."

But things are changing in Chile today. Both Franz and Rogers mention that the current generation has an increasingly feminist attitude, and is also more sexually liberal. Importantly, the current generation has also not been affected by the dictatorship in the same way that past generations were. "There is much less fear [now] to express that you don't believe something," Rogers says. During the dictatorship, to participate in a political demonstration was to risk a beating from a policeman, if not capture and torture as a political prisoner. In contrast, in recent years, countless young people have marched down Santiago's principal streets in protest about issues such as abortion. According to Rogers, the generation currently holding political power is still very much influenced by the dictatorship. "I believe that when I am thirty years old, things are going to be completely different," she says. "When we fill the government positions, [our generation is] going to be the change."

But for now, Rogers says, it concerns her that although Chile is a developed nation in terms of its economy, education, and overall mentality, it is still repressive and behind in terms of liberty and women's rights. However, what the rest of the world believes does not bother Mayo. "I am sure that in this moment, we are in the correct place," she affirms. "It is something worth defending [...] It is defending persons."

FEUC writes to Congress that the decision they will have to make could "radically change the Chile in which we live and in which our children will live." This much, as least, seems undeniable.

The image featured in this article was taken by Patrick Reilly. 

Felicia Woron


<script type="text/javascript" src="//downloads.mailchimp.com/js/signup-forms/popup/embed.js" data-dojo-config="usePlainJson: true, isDebug: false"></script><script type="text/javascript">require(["mojo/signup-forms/Loader"], function(L) { L.start({"baseUrl":"mc.us12.list-manage.com","uuid":"d2157b250902dd292e3543be0","lid":"aa04c73a5b"}) })</script>