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‘Gigantic Step Backwards’: Far-Right Gains in Chile Threaten Abortion Rights

Concerns mount as ultraconservative Republican party’s ‘right to life’ proposal could be enshrined in constitution.

The hard-won right to an abortion in Chile is at risk of being overturned, activists have warned, as the country’s far right moves to enshrine protection for “the life of the unborn child and maternity” in a new constitution.

Concerns have grown over the ultraconservative Republican party’s plans to pare back reproductive rights in Chile as it now holds significant sway in the fate of the country’s constitutional saga.

“Clearly, there is great concern over the risks to women and children implied by the suggested amendments, which threaten the most basic rights of human beings,” said Lieta Vivaldi, the director of Alberto Hurtado University’s gender and social justice programme.

“In a nation which seeks equality and justice, it is intolerable.”

After a progressive constitutional proposal which would have paved the way for the expansion of women’s rights was decisively shot down by a plebiscite in September 2022, the Republican party swept elections for a new constitutional council in May, winning enough seats to veto legislation.

More than 200 Chilean organisations have been joined by international groups in signing an open letter denouncing the Republican party’s proposal, which comes as part of a second attempt to draft a new constitution for the country.

The sexual and reproductive rights organisation Miles Chile drafted the letter, which has almost 750 signatures, declaring that the “Republican party … wishes to impose practices which threaten the rights of women, relegating their lives to second-class [status].”

“It would be a gigantic step backwards for women’s rights in Chile,” said Stephanie Otth Varnava, Miles Chile’s investigations coordinator. “It would mean joining us to a very small group of countries which have penalised abortion in any context.”

In Latin America and the Caribbean, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Suriname all have absolute bans on abortion.

In Chile, the termination of a pregnancy was permitted between 1930 and 1989, but was then penalised towards the end of Gen Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

In 2017, under Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet, abortion was decriminalised in three specific cases: when the mother’s life was at risk, if the foetus was unable to survive or if the pregnancy was the result of rape.

“After the constitution was rejected [in September], and with a large number of constitutional councillors now coming from the Republican party, we’re in a very different place to where we were a year ago,” said Otth Varnava.

However, while the political tides have changed since the leftist president Gabriel Boric was elected in late 2021, attitudes toward abortion have liberalised over the last two decades.

According to the Centro de Estudios Públicos (CEP), a Santiago-based thinktank and pollster, support for abortion in specific cases increased from 35% in 1999 to 49% in 2023.

The proportion of Chileans who said that they were against abortion under any circumstances has dropped from 55% to just 19% over the same period, putting distance between the Republican party’s hardline ideological project and the mandate it has to veto aspects of a new constitution.

Luis Silva, the Republican party councillor who won the most votes of any candidate nationwide in the elections in May, said shortly after his election that the party will not allow abortion to be guaranteed as a right in the new constitution.

And although the party currently holds just 12 of the 155 seats in the lower house and two of 50 in the senate, last month its president, Arturo Squella, said that he aims to make his party the majority force in Chile’s national congress, and from there repeal access to abortions.

The 52-person constitutional council is currently working on a “pre-project” drafted by an expert commission, to which it can propose amendments and changes which it must then pass by a three-fifths majority.

The pre-proposal guarantees a “right to life” without elaborating further, and the Republicans have targeted that bill as a means of crowbarring in their conservative view of abortion.

The Republican party was founded in 2019 by José Antonio Kast, 57, an ultraconservative father of nine and staunch Catholic, as a vehicle to run for the presidency.

In 2017 he failed to make the runoff, but in 2021 – when his platform included abolishing the women’s and gender equality ministry altogether – he won the first round before losing to Boric in the second.

Source : The Guardian