Clandestine no more

Right-to-choose campaigners Patsili Toledo and Lieta Vivaldi report on the struggle to legalise abortion in Chile

June 1, 2015 · 4 min read

Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet – former executive secretary of UN Women –has introduced a bill to liberalise the country’s abortion law. Chile is currently one of just four countries worldwide where abortion is forbidden under any circumstances, and the bill seeks to change this by legalising it if the woman’s life is at risk, in cases of rape or in the instance of foetal anomalies incompatible with life. The Catholic church and conservatives, however, are threatening to block even this limited reform.

In response, Chilean feminist and women’s organisations have launched the campaign Derecho a Decidir = Personas Libres (‘Right to Choose = Free People’). They aim to raise awareness of the importance of recognising women’s right to control their own bodies.

One of the last acts of General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship in 1989 was the repeal of the provision under Chile’s health code allowing abortions on health grounds that had been in force since 1931. The legal situation has not changed in the subsequent 25 years of democracy, a consequence of the political power of right-wing parties and the Catholic church.

Chilean women who have been raped, who have an unviable pregnancy, or whose health or life is at risk, cannot undergo a legal abortion. From time to time, the Chilean media reports cases of girls as young as 11 or 13 who have become pregnant as a consequence of rape. Not even these high-risk pregnancies can be legally aborted. 

Despite the prohibition, recent estimates place the number of clandestine abortions as high as 110,000 per year. In Chile, as elsewhere, banning abortion does not stop it from occurring but simply drives it underground, forcing women to seek illicit, unregulated abortions, whose safety varies depending on economic, social and personal resources and networks. 

Thus the ban on abortion entails not only gender discrimination but also deepens social inequalities among women. Only those who have the money and contacts can obtain safe clandestine abortions in private clinics, or can afford to travel to other countries where abortion is allowed and is thus safer. Most women abort secretly in unsafe conditions. This exposes them to health risks and even criminal prosecution. Many women, mostly young and poor, are turned over to the police by public health care providers while being treated for abortion complications.

Determined to create the popular consensus necessary to change this situation, the Derecho a Decidir campaign has organised forums, workshops and related activities. They have built links with different feminist and grassroots organisations, such as unions, student groups, indigenous peoples, human rights and environmental organisations. And they have worked with other campaigns in Latin America, especially Las 17 in El Salvador, which is campaigning for the release of 17 women imprisoned for abortion.

In December 2014, a group of Chilean women living abroad started the campaign Por el Derecho a Decidir, También en Chile (‘For the right to choose, also in Chile’) as a branch of the Chilean campaign. These women live in countries where they can freely decide to have an abortion and can access the health care to do it safely; they are among the 61 per cent of women worldwide who live in countries where abortion is a right or is legally obtainable on broad grounds. As part of their campaign they have been collecting stories of women having abortions, in order to highlight the importance of women in Chile controlling their own bodies.

The aim of their campaign is, on the one hand, to make visible the Chilean situation to the rest of the world, in order to obtain international support and solidarity; and, on the other hand, to foster awareness in Chile of the many countries where women’s right to abortion is guaranteed. 

Despite widespread support for the campaign, the debate on abortion in Chile is an unequal one. Women’s and feminist organisations are often economically precarious and in a weak position in the media and in parliament. In contrast, there is a strong presence of privileged men in political power and strong pressure from conservative sectors – who own the most important media conglomerates – opposed to abortion reform. More support is needed if the campaign is to be successful.

To support the campaign, visit

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