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Chile Takes Its First Step Towards Easing Pinochet’s Total Ban on Abortion

Deputies approved a bill allowing abortion in three highly restricted cases amid much heated debate in the chamber and on social media. The reform, celebrated as historic by women’s rights activists, now goes to the senate.

by Nicolás Ríos
Mar 17 2016, 11:35pm

Photo by Claudio Bueno/EPA

Chile's lower house of congress has challenged the country's total ban on abortion for the first time since it was put in place by General Augusto Pinochet 26 years ago.

After two days of intense and heated debate, deputies voted in favor of a law promoted by President Michelle Bachelet to allow terminations in cases of rape, when the fetus is not viable, and when the pregnancy represents a risk to the mother's life.

"This is historic. The chamber of deputies had brought down the last ideological wall of the dictatorship," the lower chamber's president Marco Antonio Núñez said, after Thursday's vote.

The bill is now due to go before the upper house where the largely left-wing government coalition also has a majority. The coalition, however, also includes senators from a catholic conservative party who might vote against the changes.

Chile is currently one of only five countries where abortion is banned in all cases without exception. The others are Malta, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Vatican City.

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Abortion in Chile, where the Catholic church hierarchy is particularly conservative and powerful, has always been highly restricted. It was, however, allowed in cases of risk to the mother's life and inviability of the fetus from 1931 until even these options were removed five months before General Augusto Pinochet left office in March 1990.

That move was promoted by Jaime Guzmán, one of the so-called "political brains" behind Pinochet's military dictatorship.

"Women are obliged to have the child in all circumstances. It is part of the cross the God gives every human," he had said back in 1980. "The mother must always have the child, even if this child is abnormal, undesired, the product of rape, or even if having the child will kill her."

The current effort to reform the law is the first to gain momentum since Pinochet left office, despite a series of left-wing presidents and opinion polls showing that a majority of the population supports some limited liberalization.

"We believe it is a watershed moment in the lives of Chilean women," Claudia Dedes of the organization Miles Chile told VICE News. "Many women suffer torture having to risk their lives in clandestine abortions."

The congressional vote dominated social networks that buzzed with fierce, and polarized, debate.

Deputy René Manuel García's statements during the debate were tweeted particularly frequently by both sides — in ridicule and in approbation.

"We could say the military government killed adults, but you kill people before they are born," García said. "What is the difference between these two crimes?"

After the vote politicians from the right-wing opposition warned that they will take their case against the bill to the courts if it is approved by the senate.

"This is a step back in the defense of the life of the unborn," said Claudia Norgueira, deputy from the Independent Union Party. "But it is just one step."

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Follow Nicolás Ríos on Twitter: @nicorios