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Chile’s chamber of deputies decided to side with women and their human rights yesterday, and approved a bill to partly decriminalize abortion. The new law would permit women to have safe, legal abortions if they are victims of rape, if their lives are in danger, or if they have received a diagnosis of a fatal malformation of their fetus. Before this becomes law, Chile’s Senate will also have to approve the bill. But this vote is a significant advance.

Demonstrators raise their thumbs in approval during a rally inside congress in favor of a draft law by the government, which seeks to ease the country's strict abortion ban, in Valparaiso, Chile March 17, 2016. The banner reads: "Chile makes history today, we become a more humane and free country". © 2016 Reuters

Chile is one of the very few countries where abortion is criminalized with no exceptions. Inducing an abortion carries a sentence of up to five years in prison for the person who caused it, be that the pregnant woman, a medical professional, or anyone else. One hundred sixty-six women were charged with abortion-related crimes between 2010 and 2013.

These harsh laws have had devastating consequences for Chilean women – by the government’s own count, more than half of the 54 women who died in 2012 due to pregnancy complications would have survived if they had been allowed a legal abortion. Between 2001 and 2012, more than 390,000 women and girls ended up in hospital because of complications related to abortions and miscarriages. Under the new law, many similarly situated women and girls could avoid clandestine and dangerous abortions.

International human rights bodies and experts have criticized Chile for years because of these undue restrictions on women’s human rights. It is great news for women that the government is on the verge of modifying these laws.

Reasonable people disagree about abortion, but governments should guarantee that human rights are respected. They have a responsibility to ensure that pregnant women in vulnerable and dangerous situations are not casualties of the public debate around abortion. Chile took a critical step yesterday in protecting women’s human rights. Now it is the Senate’s turn to act.

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