Demonstrators raises their thumbs in approval 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 law passed the Senate on July 19, 2017.

© 2016 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – The Chilean Senate on July 19, 2017 adopted a bill to ease abortion restrictions, Human Rights Watch said today. As Chile has the most restrictive abortion law in South America and one of the strictest in the world, the vote is a significant development in realizing women’s human rights and preventing unsafe, clandestine abortions in the region. 

The bill was approved more than two years after President Michelle Bachelet’s government introduced the original version of the bill.  The bill decriminalizes abortion under three circumstances:  if the life of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk; if the pregnancy is the result of rape; and if the fetus suffers severe conditions not compatible with life outside of the womb.

“Chile’s absolute prohibition on abortion has been a cruel law and bad public policy,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Doctors will no longer have to turn away women who are in desperate and life-threatening situations to seek clandestine or unsafe procedures.”

The Chilean Senate’s vote marks a significant advancement in the protection of women’s health and rights.

José Miguel Vivanco

Americas director

Chile is one of very few countries in the world where abortion is criminalized with no exceptions. They also include Nicaragua and El Salvador in Latin America, which has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion policies. These highly restrictive laws fuel unsafe, clandestine abortions, putting women’s lives at risk. By approving this bill, Chile distances itself from legal restrictions that directly harm women’s health, Human Rights Watch said.

President 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 of 1874, an abortion caused by the pregnant woman or another person is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The Senate voted on each exception to the abortion ban individually. The provision relating to a risk to the life of the pregnant women or girl was approved by a vote of 20 to 14.  The provision allowing abortion when a fetus is not viable was approved 19 to 14. The narrowest exception, and most controversial going into the vote, was abortion in the case of rape, which passed by only 2 votes, 18 to 16.   

This version of the bill must go back to the Chamber of Deputies before it is ready for President Bachelet to sign into law.

While the new law represents an advance in the region, the limitations in the law still mean that women who face health concerns due to a pregnancy cannot lawfully terminate a pregnancy. In addition, policymakers will have to address issues related to conscientious objection by a health care provider, which can impede access to legal abortion.

“The Chilean Senate’s vote marks a significant advancement in the protection of women’s health and rights,” Vivanco said.