Regional Overview - Chile

Abortion in Chile has been illegal in all circumstances—even where the life of the pregnant woman is at stake—since 1989. Notwithstanding the penal code provisions, an astounding number of women every year risk illegal and therefore generally unsafe abortions, reflecting a general inability of women to control their fertility by other means. Indeed, surveys suggest that a very high proportion of pregnancies in Chile are not desired. About 35 percent terminate in abortions, corresponding to approximately 160,000 abortions per year, 64,000 of them by girls under eighteen.

The illegality of abortion in Chile takes a devastating toll on women's health and lives. The consequences of illegal abortion constitute a leading cause of maternal mortality in this country, which in general has lower maternal mortality rates than its neighbors. Experts note that Chile could significantly lower maternal mortality if women had ready access to safe and legal abortions.

Women's rights NGOs have long worked for less restrictive abortion laws, including through a 2003 paid advertisement in one of Chile's national newspapers where 232 women declared that they had aborted and demanded that Chile legalize unrestricted abortion.

History of Chile's Laws on Abortion

Abortion has constituted a crime in Chile since 1874. The 1874 penal code, still in force, prohibits abortion in all cases. In 1931, a n ational health law (Codigo Sanitario) gave doctors the possibility to provide abortions, without criminal penalties for the doctor or the woman, where necessary to safe the pregnant woman's health or life (so-called "therapeutic abortion.") According to this law, a woman needed the consent of two doctors to obtain a non-punishable abortion. In 1989, President Pinochet annulled this statutory exception to the general illegality of abortion as one of his last acts in office. Consequently, the national health law now prohibits abortion in all circumstances.

During the presidential campaign in 1999, President Lagos noted his support for the decriminalization of abortion where the pregnant woman's life or health was in danger—in essence a legal reversal of Pinochet's 1989 health law reform. President Lagos later retracted those comments, and has since on various occasions expressed his government's stance against abortion. One of the strong presidential candidates for the 2005 presidential election, Michelle Bachelet, has expressed a need for Chile to have an open and public debate on the topic of abortion, something that has been lacking for the past decades.

Full penal and health code provisions on abortion currently in force

1874 Penal Code, articles 342-345 (Human Rights Watch translation)

Crimes and misdemeanors against family order and public morals

  • Abortion (articles 342-345)
  • Article 342. He who maliciously causes an abortion will be punished:
  • Where he caused violence to the pregnant woman, with the punishment of [imprisonment from five years and one day to ten years, as defined in Penal Code article 56].
  • Where he acted without the consent of the women, with the punishment of [imprisonment from three years and one day to five years].
  • Where the woman had given her consent, with the punishment of [imprisonment from 541 days to three years.]

Article 343. He who causes an abortion with violence, even if he did not have the intention of causing such abortion, will be punished with [imprisonment from 541 days to five years], where the pregnancy of the woman was noticeable, or the aggressor knew of it at the time of the act.

Article 344. The woman who causes her abortion, or who consents to another person causing it, will be punished with lesser jail-time in its maximum degree [three years and one day to five years]. If she did it to hide her dishonor, she will be punished with [imprisonment of 341 days to three years].

Article 345. He who, by abusing his profession, causes an abortion or cooperates in performing an abortion, will be punished with the punishments established in article 342, increased by one degree, as relevant.

1931 Codigo Sanitario, as amended in 1989 ( Human Rights Watch translation)

Article 119. No action may be taken which provokes an abortion as a result.

Relevant Statistics

  • Chile's population is approximately 15 million, of which 27 percent is under 15 years old (2002).
  • The fertility rate is 2.3 children per woman, and the annual population growth is 1.2 percent (2002).
  • Reported maternal mortality is 16.7 per 100,000 live births (2002), down from 22.3 in 1997.
  • Unsafe abortion accounts for an estimated 25 percent of maternal mortality (2004).
  • An estimated 160,000 abortions occur annually in Chile.
  • The most recent data (from 1996) shows that contraceptive use in women of childbearing age was 60.1 percent.

More information on women's reproductive rights in Chile

Last updated May 31, 2005.

[The organizations listed may or may not support legal reform to make abortion safer and more accessible. The opinions voiced by these organizations do not necessarily reflect the position of Human Rights Watch.]

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