Inside South America’s fight to legalise abortion, as the US overturns Roe v Wade

·8 min read
Abortion rights demonstrators march during a Global Day of Action for access to legal, safe and free abortion in Santiago, Chile - Esteban Felix/AP
Abortion rights demonstrators march during a Global Day of Action for access to legal, safe and free abortion in Santiago, Chile - Esteban Felix/AP

When she was a teenager, Nicole* took black market pills to induce an abortion. She lived in Santiago, Chile, and dreamed of finishing her degree and landing a job before settling down with a family. As it stood, she didn’t have the means to raise a child.

But the practice is criminalised in Chile. Unable to go to a doctor, Nicole turned to a grassroots network for support. Over the phone, the group guided her step-by-step through the process of taking a stomach prescription used to induce an abortion.

She was terrified for her health and safety, but the network told her exactly when to take it, in what dose, and what to do afterwards. “They were always on hand, and I felt safest with them,” she told the Telegraph.

For decades, feminist networks have been on the frontline of efforts to legalise abortion in Chile, where the procedure is available only in cases of rape, where a pregnancy presents a danger to the mother’s health, or if the foetus is unlikely to live.

Chilean women celebrate after the Chilean Chamber of Deputies passed abortion bill on September 28, 2021 in Santiago - Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images
Chilean women celebrate after the Chilean Chamber of Deputies passed abortion bill on September 28, 2021 in Santiago - Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

Now, these groups are on the brink of a feat unthinkable only a few years ago, as a ‘Green Wave’ sweeps across Latin America. On September 4, the country will vote on a new constitution – which includes enshrining abortion as a fundamental right. If approved, the country could become a global leader in pro-choice protections.

Chile's advances come at a pressing time – on Friday, the US Supreme Court overturned the Roe v Wade ruling that had liberalised abortion rights in the country since the 1970s, a ruling that will deny millions of women access to reproductive health in America.

‘Out of step with the rest of the world’

Sarah Shaw, head of advocacy at MSI Reproductive Choices, warned that the decision will have global ripple effects. But she added that the Green Wave in Latin America – where Argentina, Mexico and Colombia have all legalised the abortion in the last two years – offers hope.

“We must remember that this decision [in the US] is out of step with the rest of the world and goes against the ‘Green Wave’ sweeping across the rest of the Americas,” she told The Telegraph. “While this may embolden the anti-choice movement around the world, it has also motivated the global community to reassert the right to choose.”

In Santiago, a network of women believe they are on the brink of huge change.

Alondra Carrillo, 30, is the spokesperson of Chile’s largest feminist organisation, Coordinadora 8M, and is among a 155-strong assembly which has spent the past year writing a draft to replace Chile's current constitution. Written during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1980, the document was deemed illegitimate in 2019, after a period of social unrest.

Ms Carrillo was among the millions of women who not only protested for a new constitution but demanded that it was written by equal parts women and men.

“The feminist movement was a motor of the historic change we are seeing today,” Ms Carrillo told the Telegraph outside Santiago’s former Congress building where the drafting takes place. “Critics have said that abortion is a legislative issue and should not be in the constitution, but I don’t agree,” she motioned to the building behind her. “This process is about our lives. Abortion is not a secondary issue.”

Alondra Carrillo, from Coordinadora 8M – Chile’s largest feminist organisation
Alondra Carrillo, from Coordinadora 8M – Chile’s largest feminist organisation

She pointed at the situation in the US as a bleak foretelling of the vulnerability of women’s rights without constitutional protections.

“The fragility of the right to decide in the United States has happened because (lawmakers) never prioritised it and failed to consecrate reproductive rights with federal recognition,” she said.

It’s a retrogression that women in Chile have already lived through. In 1989, in the dying days of dictatorship, General Pinochet issued a decree to criminalise abortion in all cases – building on his 1980 constitution which protected the “life to be born” without mention of reproductive health.

By 1990, Chile was among the most restrictive countries in the world. Access was only eased to allow three exceptions in 2017 – nearly three decades later.

General Pinochet’s long shadow over Chile’s abortion debate has made its democratic significance evermore important to the country’s women and queer communities.

“Living in a country that enacts absolute criminalisation on abortion means living in a country that constantly tells you that you are not able to make decisions about your own life,” said Ms Carrillo, who grew up under Pinochet’s ban.

In the past five years, 366 women have faced legal prosecution for autonomous abortions, including 39 minors. Chile law threatens women with up to five years in jail – although most cases are dropped by prosecutors during the investigation phase and others sentenced with a fine.

Chilean women celebrate after the Chilean Chamber of Deputies passed abortion bill on September 28, 2021 in Santiago - Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images
Chilean women celebrate after the Chilean Chamber of Deputies passed abortion bill on September 28, 2021 in Santiago - Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

Efforts to change the law through the legislative process have made little headway. In 2021, Chilean lawmakers voted against decriminalising abortion, while bids to amplify access have been blocked by conservatives.

This is why Ms Carrillo and her peers have taken to playing the late dictator at his own game. They want to change the constitution, but this time with legitimate democratic backing. September will offer the opportunity they have been fighting for throughout their adult lives.

As it stands, the new constitution stipulates that “all people are owners of their sexual and reproductive rights”, which “includes the right to make decisions about their own body in a free, autonomous and informed way… about sexuality, reproduction, pleasure and contraception”.

International reproductive rights advocates are heralding the process in Chile as a game-changing moment.

“Having such strong language on abortion in the constitution is a big step,” said Enid Muthoni Ndiga, chief programme officer at the Center for Reproductive Rights. But she cautioned that change would not happen overnight: “It’s one thing to have it in the constitution, and another to have it implemented.”

The data makes her point. Since the three-exception law was brought in, from 2018 to 2020, there were only 2.207 registered cases of legal abortions in Chile. An ongoing study by the University of Chile concluded that the stigma of abortion has prevented women from getting the support they are legally entitled to, because of the fear '”of being judged, shamed and made to feel guilty”.

Feminist activists hold up green handkerchiefs -in favour of the decriminalization of abortion- during a protest against gender violence and patriarchy in Santiago - CLAUDIO REYES/AFP via Getty Images
Feminist activists hold up green handkerchiefs -in favour of the decriminalization of abortion- during a protest against gender violence and patriarchy in Santiago - CLAUDIO REYES/AFP via Getty Images

Last year’s presidential election also exposed deep polarisations: although progressive millennial candidate Gabriel Boric claimed a comfortable victory, 44 per cent of voters backed far-right opponent Jose Antonio Kast, a devout Catholic who sought to revert to a total abortion ban.

Ms Muthoni Ndiga stressed the importance of educating health providers across Chile to break existing stigma, and social mobilisation is the key “to translate the laws and policies into actual access.”

It is a challenge that the incumbent government has sworn to address. Mr Boric is a vocal supporter of abortion rights, and members of his Broad Front party are anticipating the constitutional outcome to draft new legislation that guarantees access.

Broad Front deputy Maite Orsini said it had previously been difficult to get the majority votes required in parliament to advance legislation. “If the new constitution is approved, we wouldn’t have to debate whether the right to choose should be law or not; we’d just have to discuss what terms we guarantee these rights,” she said.

Nicole, who took the misoprostol pills, does not regret the decision she made. Now in her thirties, she is frustrated that so much time has passed with such little change; that today, she’d be subject to the same fear, uncertainty and risk she experienced as a teenager.

She finished her degree, established a career, and had a family on her terms. In her home in southern Chile, she puts her young children to bed and takes a moment to read over the draft of the constitution, turning the pages to Article 16: Reproductive and Sexual Rights.

“It’s complete and highlights the right to choose,” she told The Telegraph over the phone. “I say this as a mother: it’s fundamental that the full picture of pregnancy is considered – not just the nine-month gestation period, but all circumstances. Children are for life.”

She will vote to approve the constitution in September and is hopeful that abortion will be made law soon. “Abortion is not an easy decision, and if the state supports us as we make those choices… well, it would be marvellous.”

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