SANTIAGO (AFP) – Raped by a member of her family and pregnant with a fetus that doctors said wouldn’t survive, the 13-year-old Chilean girl had no choice but to carry the baby to term.
Since her baby died of congenital heart defects on November 5, hours after birth, the unnamed girl’s case has fueled outrage in Chile – one of just seven countries where abortion is illegal under any circumstance.
Her rape followed close on the heels of another last year in which an 11-year-old girl named as Belen was impregnated by her stepfather and had to give birth to his baby, ultimately putting it up for adoption.
The two cases have reignited debate on abortion in the South American country, prompting a group of lawmakers to reintroduce dormant legislation Tuesday that would legalize abortion in extreme cases such as rape, fatal birth defects or danger to the mother’s life.
For more than 50 years, until 1989, Chile permitted abortion if the mother’s life was in danger or the fetus was unviable.
But in 1989, in one of the last acts of his 17-year rule, dictator Augusto Pinochet outlawed abortion in all cases.
Various initiatives to repeal the law have failed since the return to democracy in 1990, attacked in powerful lobbying campaigns by the Catholic Church and conservative groups.
Today, however, more than 70 per cent of Chileans say women should have the right to abortion in cases of rape, fatal birth defects or extreme risk, polls show.
“There’s been a very deep cultural change in the country and people are demanding it,” said Claudia Dides, an activist with a local pro-choice group.
She said the declining influence of the Church in the wake of several high-profile pedophilia scandals had contributed to the change.
President Michelle Bachelet’s government announced Friday that it would send legislation to Congress by January 31 to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, risk to the mother or deadly birth defects.
Bachelet, a doctor who returned to office this March after serving as Chile’s first woman president from 2006 to 2010, was the inaugural director of UN Women during her break between terms.
Lawmakers from her Socialist party were to take a first step Tuesday by reintroducing abortion bills that had previously died in the legislature.
“Chile must stop living in obscurantism and being one of the few countries on the planet that refuses to pass legislation on this issue,” said Senator Guido Girardi, who sponsored one of the bills.
But not everyone agrees.
Conservative groups argue that even in extreme cases like rape and incest, abortion only makes matters worse.
“It hasn’t been demonstrated that abortion is better for women, that it causes them less suffering. What’s been observed is more post-traumatic stress and suicide attempts,” said doctor Jorge Acosta of the Res Publica institute. There are 30,000 interrupted pregnancies or miscarriages in Chile every year, according to official statistics, which do not indicate how many are illegal abortions. Having an abortion is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Today, judges tend to issue less severe punishments, and no one has been sentenced to prison for the crime in recent years. But because it takes place in the shadows, abortion remains shrouded in safety fears.
That affects women like Natalia Ahumada, 34, who learned when she was 20 weeks pregnant that her baby had a severe deformity.