Controversial case opens up discussion of abortion in Chile

November 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
On Saturday, we report from Santiago. Chile has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, but the recent rape and impregnation of an 11-year-old girl has ignited a national debate on this previously taboo topic.

PETER EISNER: What happened to an 11-year-old girl in Chile last summer ignited a national debate and sparked demonstrations in this conservative catholic country about an always taboo subject; abortion.  Newspapers reported the story of the girl, known only as Belen, who had been raped repeatedly and impregnated by her step-father.  And it got to be even bigger news after the Chilean president went on national television to congratulate the fifth-grader for deciding not to terminate her pregnancy.

PRESIDENT PIÑERA: With words that showed depth and maturity, she said despite the pain that the man who raped her had caused, she was going to love and take care of her baby.”

PETER EISNER: The President’s comments drew condemnation from international organizations like amnesty international and provoked demonstrations.  In one case a group of young women even bared their breasts and marched in downtown Santiago.  A recent public opinion poll shows that two thirds of Chileans supporting a woman’s right to choose an abortion after being raped.

Chile abortion protest 3

CLAUDIA DIDES: The case of the little girl who was raped by her stepfather in southern Chile is a case that very much moved public opinion. Maybe women can have the right to decide freely on their bodies, our bodies…

PETER EISNER: South America is overwhelmingly Catholic and abortion is generally illegal, but most countries allow exceptions for rape, and in cases involving the health of mother and fetus. For most of the 20th century, Chile also allowed those exceptions. That changed in 1989 at the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s 27- year dictatorship. Pinochet issued a decree banning all abortions. Chile is now one of four countries in the Americas that prohibit all abortions for any reason — a topic little discussed in the years since until the case of the 11 year-old made national news.  In a round-about way, that case shone a spotlight on practices that have been going on for years in Chile but are rarely acknowledged in public.  Despite the total ban on all abortions the government usually looks the other way for affluent or well-connected women if a physician determines there is a medical reason for the procedure. Doctors perform about 30,000 such abortions every year and sometimes falsify records to say they had performed appendectomies or other procedures instead.  And by most estimates there are another 120,000 elective abortions done every year.

This woman’s story illustrates that statistic.  Francisca, a 30-year-old woman who lives in Santiago, says she became pregnant after her doctor told her to stop taking birth control pills due to a circulatory problem.  She spoke in shadow because she would be subject to arrest if indentified.  More than 100 people were charged with having an abortion or helping to provide an abortion in 2012, and more than 400 women and men, are currently in jail or on probation on such charges. 

FRANCISCA: The truth is that I think if someone gets pregnant at 30 years old and wasn’t on any sort of hormonal birth control or at least counting days, its pretty ignorant.  I knew that I was involved in a risky situation.

PETER EISNER: She says arranging an elective abortion in Chile is like making a drug deal.

FRANCISCA: It feels like you are doing something criminal, like the entire time you fell you are doing something really really wrong.

PETER EISNER: She says she met a woman on a street corner, was led by another woman she didn’t know to a building she could never find again. The woman took her to a small apartment.

FRANCISCA: When she injected me with the dilator, it was mixed in a serum, I had no idea what they were injecting me with.

PETER EISNER: So, you have to hope and trust that the person is…

FRANCISCA: I thought, well, what if something happens to me?  Who do I call? Should I call the ambulance? Ok, well, then we’ll all go to jail.

PETER EISNER: Some people would say here that this is a very religious, socially conservative country and you know that very well, and you also know the risks,.  You know what the rules are. What would you say to them?

FRANCISCA: There’s no sympathy.  Why can’t I make a mistake? I feel that this is a big injustice and it makes me motivated to do more.  I have to be responsible because there are women behind me and I do not want them to go through this.

PETER EISNER: She says that she and her friends never discuss abortion and few of them knows what she has gone through.  She says it’s a conspiracy of silence for fear of going to jail or being shunned by those who oppose abortion.

FRANCISCA: It’s sad. It’s very lonely.

PETER EISNER: In her case, she stayed healthy and she wasn’t caught. But she says the first procedure didn’t work. A second chemical abortion was successful only after another visit to the same clandestine practitioner. Francisca says she paid more than $1,000, approaching a month’s average salary. Some women pay many times that much. Chile has a ministerial level government agency dedicated to women’s issues, The National Institute for Women.  We wanted to know whether the federal government was doing anything to help women having these dangerous procedures.  The institute’s director, Loreto Seguel, agreed to talk with us.   

PETER EISNER: We see statistics that say that maybe there are 120,000 abortions in Chile every year. Understanding that abortion is absolutely illegal in Chile, does the government still have a responsibility to help the women who have had these illegal abortions?

LORETO SEGUEL: It is important to say that the national women’s service does not do direct work in terms of abortions.  Of course those stats you’re mentioning could be right but the goals of our programming is geared towards adolescent  pregnancies and preventing a second pregnancy.

PETER EISNER: Who else could I talk to in the government that would tell me how one can take care of women who nevertheless are having abortions and who nevertheless are sometimes operating underground in frightening ways that could hurt their health?

LORETO SEGEUL: Chile hasn’t been attempting to tackle the issue of clandestine abortions or adolescent pregnancies through one service agency.

PETER EISNER: While the government says it has limited ability to provide support or counseling to women facing unwanted pregnancies, private groups, pro-life and pro-choice, do provide hotline counseling.

Veronica Hoffman is the director of a pro-life, anti-abortion group, Chile United. She says that her hotline is successful in comforting women and counseling them to keep their babies.

VERONICA HOFFMAN: They are very lonely, very worried, perhaps they are young women who did not think they would be having a baby, so… somehow when the test tells them they are going to have a baby, they feel very desperate, and that’s when they call us, then we decrease their stress level, and we start to check in with those who are thinking that they want an abortion. 

PETER EISNER: She says she also sympathizes with the case of 11-year-old Belen and young girls like her, but she thinks an abortion would be worse.

VERONICA HOFFMAN: I want to make it clear, it’s not that we are not empathizing with that little girl, with that situation with the rape, but we do know that if they make the decision to terminate pregnancy of their child… that damage will be more severe than continuing with her pregnancy.

PETER EISNER: Pro-choice advocates also provide abortion counseling… The difference is that these organizations, such as Chile’s safe abortion hotline, operate underground.  Volunteers wear masks when promoting the hotline in public. Pro-choice sociologist Claudia Dides says politicians have been afraid to reverse Pinochet’s decree against abortion, even though a majority of Chileans support changes in the case of rape or when the life of the mother is in danger. 

CLAUDIA DIDES: They wanted to avoid talking about them or legislating them. We say the political elite or political class, they decided not to open the debate on these issues. So there hasn’t been a debate in the last 24 years.

PETER EISNER: But controversy surrounding the 11-year-old girl, Belen, has prompted Michelle Bachelet, 

the former president and likely to be Chile’s next president according to polls, to declare that she is in favor of exceptions to the country’s strict abortion laws.  While Claudia Dides fears that a divided Congress may yet block Bachelet’s commitment to change the law, she is glad that finally there is a national dialogue on the subject. 

CLAUDIA DIDES: I think the issue of abortion has come into the public agenda, we have approached all the candidates to talk about it, and I think that is progress. And in that sense I think we’ve taken a step for the first time in 24 years,

PETER EISNER: And as for the little girl, Belen, who started all this.. Loreto Seguel, the head of the National Institute for Women, says that the government is keeping a close eye on her. 

LORETO SEGUEL: Right now Belen is carrying out her pregnancy with special support.

PETER EISNER: Certainly in the case of Belen, there were calls for allowing an exemption so that she could have an abortion. Was there ever any consideration by you or by the President that in this particular case there should be an exemption?

LORETO SEGUEL: Well, the position and the conviction of the national women’s service and of President Piñera’s government has been and is to protect and save the life of the child that is due to be born.

PETER EISNER: But, final question, you still don’t want to see any change in the law as it is.

LORETO SEGUEL President Piniera’s position has been very clear about the politics of this issue–

PETER EISNER: But in short the answer is no need for any change in the law?

LORETO SEGUEL: The administration has a position and a conviction, and in Chile, this is our challenge, what kind of society do we want to be?