Chile court rules in favor of abortion in limited cases

SANTIAGO – The Chilean Constitutional Tribunal on Monday upheld a measure that would end the country’s absolute ban on abortions.

The court’s 6-4 vote accepted the constitutionality of a measure to legalize abortions when a woman’s life is in danger, when a fetus is not viable and in cases of rape.

President Michelle Bachelet has said she will sign the measure that passed Congress this month. It will end Chile’s stance as the last country in South America to ban abortion in all cases.

“Today, women have won, democracy has won, all of Chile has won,” said Bachelet, a physician and former head of U.N. Women.

Court secretary Rodrigo Pica said details of the decision, which cannot be appealed, would be released on Aug. 28.

President Michelle Bachelet first introduced the bill in January 2015, to address the absolute ban on abortion in Chile’s criminal code. Under articles 342 (3) and 344 of the Chilean Criminal Code, an abortion caused by the pregnant woman or another person was punishable by up to five years in prison.

While the new law represents progress in Chile, limitations in the law and the ruling continue to unduly restrict women’s access to abortion. Women or girls whose health, as opposed to their life, is at risk due to a pregnancy cannot lawfully terminate a pregnancy under the new law. In addition, the court appears to allow private hospitals to refuse access to abortion on grounds of conscience, rather than limiting such objections to individual doctors.

Demonstrators in favor of therapeutic abortion celebrated outside the courtroom in the Chilean capital, while opponents protested, including two women carrying anti-abortion banners who embraced in tears after the decision was announced.

Conservative lawmakers had filed an appeal with the court to halt the law, arguing it was unconstitutional.

Chile legalized abortion for medical reasons in 1931, but the procedure was then banned under all circumstances in 1989 during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Women found guilty of having abortions now face prison terms of up to five years. Still, thousands of illegal abortions are performed every year. Most involve black-market purchases of the drug misoprostol to end first-trimester pregnancies.

Those who can afford to sometimes seek abortions in neighboring Argentina or beyond.

The bill’s passage comes as views continue to shift on social issues once considered taboo in the heavily Roman Catholic nation that only began to allow divorce in 2004. Congress recognized civil unions for same-sex couples in 2015.

Chile is one of four countries that currently prohibit abortion in all cases, though a few others have rules so restrictive that they amount to de facto bans.