Chile moves to ease strict abortion laws in limited cases

SANTIAGO – Chile’s senate early Wednesday took a major step towards lifting the country’s total ban on abortions by agreeing to decriminalize the procedure in certain cases.

The measure, supported by President Michelle Bachelet, would allow abortion in cases of rape, if the mother’s life was at risk, or if the foetus would not survive the pregnancy. Currently, women can be prosecuted if they have an abortion.

After hours of tense debate and more than two years in the making, the senators approved the proposal by voting separately on each measure.

The abortion measure still needs approval by the Chamber of Deputies to be signed into law by Bachelet, a pediatrician who returned to office in March 2014 after serving as Chile’s first woman president from 2006 to 2010.

The approval comes ahead of November presidential elections in which Bachelet will not participate. Opinion polls show that in November voters will likely re-elect right-wing former president Sebastian Pinera.

Bachelet said that she will make the measure’s approval and full implementation a priority before she leaves office in March 2018.

“It’s an act of cruelty to not allow women to decide,” said pro-government Senator Guido Girardi during the debate.

Conservative Senator Ena Von Baer warned that she would send the measure to the Constitutional Tribunal for review, claiming that it denies protection to the child that is about to be born.

During the debate police were called in to remove religious activists from the chamber because they kept interrupting debate with anti-abortion chants.

The vote in favor of allowing abortion in cases in which the mother’s life is at risk was 20 in favor and 14 opposed

That of allowing a termination in cases where the foetus is unviable was 18 to 14

The closest result was for the vote on whether to allow abortions in cases of rape. Eighteen senators voted in favor and 16 against

The proposal was first introduced two and a half years ago and has faced by stiff opposition from the Catholic Church and socially conservative groups.

Chilean conservatives have rallied against the abortion bill ever since Bachelet introduced it in January 2015.

Nevertheless polls show that 70 percent of Chileans support legalized abortion under those three conditions.

Abortion in limited cases was legal in Chile until 1989, when it was completely banned under the rule of Gen Augusto Pinochet. Under current law abortion is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Prior to that, for more than 50 years, Chile permitted abortion if the mother’s life was in danger or if the fetus was not viable.