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Chile's President Wants To Ease Abortion Ban, But Opponents Push Back

Demonstrators in favor of abortion rights (left) shout at an anti-abortion activist at a rally in in Santiago, Chile, on March 21. Chile is one of the few countries that bans abortion in all circumstances. Lawmakers are working on a measure that would allow abortions in some cases. But many religious conservatives say the current law should remain.

Just 18 and still in high school, Camila Rodriguez did not feel prepared for motherhood when she learned she was unexpectedly pregnant. She began asking around her school, hoping to find someone selling Misoprostol, a pharmaceutical drug that treats stomach ulcers, but which has been banned in Chile since 2001 because it can also induce abortions.

She obtained a contact over Whatsapp through a friend and reluctantly agreed to meet them behind a mall downtown. Rodriguez purchased 12 pills for approximately $104. Taking one hourly throughout the day, she experienced vomiting, headaches, fever, stomach pain — and ultimately, an abortion.

"Luckily, I didn't have a lot of complications," she said. "It was extremely painful, but I didn't have to go to a doctor or anything. It hurt for a full day and then after, I felt good."

Now 20, Rodriguez is still living in Chile's coastal town of Vina del Mar and has given advice to many of her friends looking for their own safe options for abortion, which has been illegal in Chile, without exception, since 1990.

According to a 2014 United Nations report, only five other countries also have an outright ban on abortion — Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, the Vatican and Malta. Chile's laws are some of the most strict, according the report. While most of these countries penalize women who get abortions, Chile imprisons both women and the doctors who administer abortions to sentences of three to 15 years.

"When we say that a woman is obligated to live with a pregnancy — that's a form of torture," said Rosario Puga, coordinator for the advocacy group Miles Chile, which supports abortion rights. "They don't have the legal right to go to a medical team for intervention."

However, President Michelle Bachelet took office in 2014 with reproductive rights as one of her major campaign themes.

"I believe that women have the right to make a decision," Bachelet said during a March speech. "I firmly believe in that."

Chile's legislature is moving toward a possible amendment to the current law, though the change is by no means certain, and conservative groups are resisting any easing of the ban on abortion.

In September, Chile's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, approved legislation that would make abortion legal in three cases: rape, when the woman's life is in danger and in the case of a genetic or structural condition that would lead to a stillbirth.

In addition, discussion about the details of the proposed law began earlier this month in the Senate's Constitutional Commission. It plans to bring in more than 25 lawyers, doctors and academics before the Senate votes.

Sen. Pedro Araya, president of the Constitutional Commission, said the goal is to move as quickly as possible. Both Bachelet and members of Congress have made clear the law is a priority this year.

Law dates to Pinochet era

Chile's abortion law can be traced to the rule of President Augusto Pinochet, who criminalized all abortions in 1990, just months before his 17-year rule ended.

Prior to that, Chile allowed abortions in extreme cases and did not prosecute women who showed up at hospitals in need of treatment when an illicitly performed procedure had gone wrong.

Dr. Guillermo Galan, a gynecologist based in the capital Santiago, said it was sad to see the row of beds filled with women from botched abortions in the 1970s. But at least they had access to healthcare. Today, he noted, doctors are obligated to report these women to the authorities or face legal repercussions of their own.

Certain physicians, Galan said, will take the risk and perform an abortion in exchange for an under-the-table cash payment at clinics that have the necessary equipment for other legal operations. However, this option is rare and can cost $12,000, he said.

Since 2010, Chilean courts have handled 289 cases related to abortion, and 86 have resulted in a conviction, according Poder Judicial, a government institution that oversees all legal proceedings.

Most women opt for Misoprostol or similar pharmaceuticals like Mifepristone that are trafficked into Chile from countries that sell them legally, like Argentina and Peru.

The risks of permanent damage to the mother from these abortion-inducing pills are known to be comparatively low, especially if taken before 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Opting for illegal abortions

However, not all women choose this option, and more than 390,000 women in Chile were reportedly hospitalized with complications related to abortions and miscarriage between 2001 and 2012, according to a Human Rights Watch report in March.

Claudia Tosara, 43, of Santiago, said she had an abortion through surgical intervention more than 10 years ago, paying cash to a doctor who arranged it away from the medical clinic.

"There weren't any negative consequence from the operation," she said. "But at the time, it was really shocking because [the room] was very dirty and the doctor showed no sympathy. He just wanted the money."

Women who prefer to avoid such unsafe and illegal circumstances must travel abroad. Though Argentina is close by, its abortion laws vary by region and often require lengthy paperwork or sometimes even an appearance before a judge. Cuba, with a well-regarded healthcare system and open abortion laws, is also a popular option, as is the United States.

The Presidential Women's Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, receives Chilean women seeking an abortion at least once or twice a month, according to counselor Silvana Ojeda.

"It's sad," she said of the many women who come to terminate pregnancies due to fetal anomalies. "They go from being very happy, and then the last thing they want to think about is having to find an abortion center in a foreign country."

Opposition to changing the law

Meanwhile, many right-leaning politicians and interest groups in Chile continue fighting against the possibility of allowing women to terminate a pregnancy.

"Doctors are supposed to protect people," wrote Los Andes Professor Hernan Corral in an August op-ed for the Chilean newspaper La Tercera. "They shouldn't be able to perform operations that deprive human life."

Nearly 500 white doctors' coats were laid out on the lawn of the presidential palace in a counter-protest during an abortion rights demonstration in mid-September, organized by the group Doctors for Life. According to the group, an anti-abortion petition circulating in the country had received approximately 46,000 signatures.

Earlier this year, Chile's Catholic Church released an 18-page statement against decriminalized abortion, and warned that the country would be fostering a "culture of death."

On Sept. 27, after the Chilean Chamber of Deputies approved the legislation, Sen. Soledad Alvear reportedly asked members of of the chamber to reconsider their position on abortion, arguing that she could not support the notion of anyone having the right to end a child's life.

Other legislators have reportedly raised the argument that some women may try to fake rape accusations in order to legally terminate unwanted pregnancies.

On the other side of the debate, some abortion rights groups say the legislation doesn't go far enough in giving women control over their bodies, most notably in cases of incest, which is not included in the legislation.

"The law is too strict," coordinator for the Chilean Network against Domestic and Sexual Violence Soledad Acevedo said at an abortion rally in downtown Santiago on Sept. 28, the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. "They don't understand the magnitude of reasons that a woman might need an abortion."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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