Shocking ads ignite debate about abortion ban in Chile

2015-05-28 10:09


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Santiago - The video shows a woman climbing a stairwell, her belly visibly pregnant, as she offers suggestions: Make sure there are no security cameras. Be careful not to look down or you might regret it.

She tumbles backward as the screen goes black. "When you reach the bottom everything will be OK," she says.

The video is one of a series of mock abortion tutorials, part of a public campaign urging Chile to allow women to end pregnancies in cases of rape or medical complications. It would be a radical change for Chile, one of only six countries that prohibit all abortion, according to the New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights.

The videos are deliberately dark and disturbing, appearing to show pregnant women throwing themselves into traffic or thrusting their stomachs onto fire hydrants. Released last month, the videos organised by Miles, a non-governmental group, aim to rally support for President Michelle Bachelet's attempt to ease the abortion ban.

"Clandestine abortions are carried out in Chile and abortions will continue with or without politicians or a law," Miles director Claudia Dides said. "What we want is for abortions to be safe."

The debate comes as Chile, one of Latin America's most socially conservative countries, grapples with shifting views on once-taboo issues. The mostly Roman Catholic country began to allow divorce in 2004. Earlier this year, Congress recognised civil unions for gay couples and, recently, a pilot programme in Santiago harvested the country's first legal medical marijuana.

The changing attitudes mark a generational shift, as young people born after the 1973-1990 military dictatorship come of age. The trend has accelerated since a wave of student protests demanding educational reform began in 2011 and in the wake of Catholic priest sex-abuse scandals that have provoked questioning of church doctrine.

In 2013, then-President Sebastian Pinera came under fire when he praised a pregnant 11-year-old girl for her "depth and maturity" after she said in a TV interview that she wanted to keep the baby, the product of a rape by her mother's partner.

A recent discussion on abortion at Santiago's Diego Portales University drew a packed audience, with many students forced to sit on the floor.

"As a country, we are behind," said Fernanda Saavedra, a student who attended. "We need to evolve and think more about women."

Chile legalised abortion for medical reasons in 1931, some 18 years before it allowed women to vote. But during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, abortion was banned under all circumstances.

Today, women found guilty of having abortions face prison terms of up to five years.

Still, an estimated 120 000 illegal abortions are performed every year, according to the Miles group. Most women use the drug misoprostol, buying it on the black market, to end first-trimester pregnancies. Others undergo conventional abortions in secret. Those who can afford to travel seek abortions in neighbouring Argentina or beyond.

'So brutal'

Nelly Milad flew to Cuba in 2004 to end an unviable pregnancy.

"I've felt so much impotence, frustration and anger. You feel so left behind by a medical team that can't help you even when they morally want to, because they fear they'll be thrown into jail," Milad said.

Andrea Quiroga, an accountant, was newly married in 2010 when she learned her 11-week-old foetus would not survive. Nevertheless, the law required her to continue the pregnancy until the unborn girl died at 26 weeks and doctors were allowed to induce delivery.

"It was so brutal," she said. "I had to give birth to my daughter and see her bleeding in my arms. I don't think anyone should have to go through that because it stays with you the rest of your life."

Bachelet, a physician and former head of UN Women, the agency for gender equality, was scolded by conservative politicians and even some allies in 2006 when, during her first term, she legalised distribution of the morning-after pill.

Her new proposal would allow abortion for cases of rape, a pregnancy that endangers a woman and situations when a foetus is unviable. It is expected to go before lawmakers in the next few months and likely will face strong opposition even though Bachelet supporters control Congress.

"The reasons to interrupt a pregnancy keep expanding and we're going to reach an abortion a la carte," said Jorge Sabag, a lawmaker for the opposition Christian Democratic Party.

The Catholic archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, has urged Chileans to protect the unborn. In a recent statement, Chilean bishops said that there is no justification for so-called "therapeutic" abortions when a woman's health is at risk and that "in no instance does it help heal traumatic moments."

Most Chileans appear to think otherwise.

A poll released last year said 70% support abortion in cases of rape and slightly more for unviable pregnancies or when a woman's health is at risk. The survey by Centro de Estudios Publicos questioned 1 442 people between July and August and had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

One young woman, who used misoprostol to terminate an unplanned pregnancy in January, said such decisions should be left to women. She insisted on not being quoted by name to keep her family from learning of her abortion.

"I'd tell every woman who wants to abort or has aborted in Chile that there's nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to feel guilty about. Our bodies belong to us and it's our decision," she said.

"Most politicians and priests are men. So why should they get to say anything about this?"

Read more on:    chile

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