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Conservative Chile Moves to Legalize Abortion and Same-Sex Civil Unions

President Michelle Bachelet has enough votes in Congress to pass the changes, despite opposition from defenders of the Pinochet-era laws. Bachelet has promised to eventually legalize full gay marriage.

by Nicolás Ríos
Feb 2 2015, 8:18pm

Photo courtesy of Fundación Iguales

The socialist government of President Michelle Bachelet in Chile achieved in four days what many once thought would take years — the approval of a civil union law for same-sex couples and a government plan that would decriminalize abortion.

On January 28, Chile's Congress passed a civil union law for same-sex couples and Bachelet has said she plans on signing it.

Then on Saturday, the president announced a bill that would introduce into law so-called "therapeutic abortion," a limited definition for cases in which the mother's life is in danger, a fetus's birth is considered unviable, or in cases of rape.

The influential Roman Catholic hierarchy vehemently rejected the abortion policy change, which would turn back rules made in the final months of the dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Chile is one of few countries left in Latin America with a practically total ban on abortion.

"We can't obligate women to carry the heavy consequence of being unable to decide [to end a pregnancy] because of a law, because that tramples their dignity, prolongs their suffering, and risks their lives," Bachelet said as she announced the bill.

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It was a remarkable turn for a country considered one of the most conservative in South America.

Chile barely eliminated a legal category for "illegitimate" children in 1998. Sex between men was decriminalized in 1999, and only in 2004 did the country legalize divorce, one of the last countries in the world to do so.

The new proposed changes are expected to get implemented with Bachelet's strong ruling majority in Congress. And the president wants more, promising during her 2013 campaign to also make gay marriage legal in Chile, as South American neighbors Argentina and Uruguay have done.

Kenneth Bunker, a political scientist in Santiago, said Bachelet's New Majority coalition is allowing her to fulfill campaign promises made during her second winning run for the presidency, despite dropping approval ratings overall.

"No government since the return to democracy in 1990 has advanced its legislative agenda as rapidly as this administration," Bunker told VICE News.

But the announcements were met with protests and impassioned opposition from Chile's socially conservative right and from religious groups. During one legislative session, a Christian evangelical pastor from Viña del Mar interrupted a debate and shoved a lawmaker.

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"We should not have changed the status of the civil union," conservative lawmaker Jorge Ulloa said in an interview. "The concept of family goes beyond just two people, because the prolonging of our species does not occur between individuals of the same sex."

Gay-rights advocates in Chile cheered the civil-union vote. Bachelet is expected to sign the bill into law in March, and same-sex civil unions could begin six months later.

"For the first time in the history of Chile two people of the same sex are recognized as family," Luis Larraín, president of gay-rights group Fundación Iguales, told VICE News. "Now we can be part of society after so many years of feeling excluded."

There was an added recent victory for the left in Chile related to education, a central political issue in Chile in recent years.

On January 26, Congress passed a law outlawing the practice of private religious schools excluding student applicants who are not baptized or whose parents are unwed.

The change was also largely opposed by the Catholic Church. But it promised to be the first of several bills that Bachelet is expected to send to Congress to reform the country's education system, after massive demonstrations began around the issue in 2011.

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Follow Nicolás Ríos on Twitter @nicorios.