SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)--Chile's populist female president Michelle Bachelet is finding herself caught between a rock and a hard place, facing international criticism for the country's slow progress on reproductive rights and a fierce domestic backlash against her efforts to make change.
In mid-August, Chile provided a progress report before the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women at United Nations headquarters in New York. The committee is comprised of 23 women's rights experts from around the world. During the hearing, many expressed alarm over Chile's strict abortion laws and high rates of teen pregnancy.
Chile's National Institute for Youth reports that almost 14 percent of Chilean women are mothers by the age of 14 and an average 40,000 babies are born to women younger than age 19 every year.
On Sept. 2, Chile's health minister, Maria Soledad Barria, announced new government regulations on reproduction that aim to change those statistics by allowing the distribution of the emergency contraception pill free of charge in public health clinics for women age 14 and up. Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy when taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse.
But in a country still regarded as the most socially conservative in South America, the distribution plan ignited a storm of opposition from religious groups, the political right and even some of the government's own ruling coalition members.
A legal challenge was quickly filed by a municipal mayor in the capital. On Sept. 13, the Santiago Court of Appeals ordered the government to stop providing emergency contraception to female teens age 14 to 18 without the consent of their parents. The government is appealing the ruling and President Bachelet came out in defense of the regulations, saying the state has a responsibility to respond to unintended pregnancies when families don't.
Efforts to provide emergency contraception have faced legal battles across Latin America, says Lidia Casas, a law professor at Diego Portales University in Santiago. Despite rulings against some types of pills, Casas says Ecuador is the only country in South America where emergency contraception is currently banned. In the United States, emergency contraception was approved for nonprescription sale to women over 18 in August.
But the issue remains controversial in Chile, with recent public opinion polls by various newspapers and pollsters showing slightly more opposition than support for the measure to provide emergency contraception to teens.
"It's very wrong because girls that age don't have the maturity to decide what they have to do and giving this pill to them is making them decide quickly," says 16-year-old Catalina de Vicente, as she chats with friends outside the Villa Maria private school for girls.
The argument that the pill promotes premature sexual activity was also aired by some of the government's own political allies.
Since the return to democracy in 1990, Chile has been ruled by a coalition of four left-wing parties, the largest of which is the Christian Democratic Party, which has a strong Catholic base. Within days of the government's announcement, the Christian Democrats issued a statement expressing their dismay for not being consulted and concern that the new regulations could encourage premature and irresponsible sexual activity.
Some opponents even suggest emergency contraception could actually increase teen pregnancy rates by creating a false sense of security.
Emphasizing Sex Education
The government says its new health regulations also include initiatives to educate young people about their sexual health and prevention programs that aim to cut teen pregnancies by 45 percent by 2015.
The furor over the plan to distribute emergency contraception pills also comes on the heels of a backlash over the government's intention to ratify a controversial optional protocol of the international women's rights treaty, called CEDAW, ratified by Chile in 1989.
Chile signed the optional protocol in 1999, but it was scuttled by the Senate during a special legislative session in January 2002. The main arguments for rejecting the protocol were that it would "hand over" national sovereignty to an international body, which would then have the power to impose a law permitting abortion on the country.
Ratifying the protocol would give the CEDAW Convention legal force, and allow Chilean women who believe their rights are being violated, having exhausted all legal recourses in their own justice system, to bring their case before an international tribunal.
All forms of abortion are illegal in Chile, even if the life of the mother or the fetus is in danger. While there are no official statistics, estimates by public health officials put the number of illegal abortions between 160,000 and 200,000 per year.
At the Aug. 16 hearing at the United Nations, CEDAW committee members had many questions and criticisms of Chile's abortion policies and they asked whether there were any government efforts to revise a law that banned abortion, made it a crime and required public hospital officials to report illegal procedures.
Chile's minister for women, Laura Albornoz, was explicit in her reply that there are no plans to liberalize Chile's abortion laws; the nation's constitution enshrines a "respect for life."
Fears of Losing Sovereignty
Still, the U.N. committee's criticisms have been interpreted here as international pressure, touching off debate among senators who fear ratifying the optional protocol would strip Chile of its sovereignty and open the door to criminal cases against the state for not providing safe abortions.
"We understand that the protocol has some ambiguities," says Sen. Sergio Romero, one of several senators who rejected it in 2002. "We naturally worry that Chile's laws could be put to an international body with who-knows-who imposing their views on our culture, which prioritizes the right to life."
Still, the way the protocol is worded it would be nearly impossible for Chile to face any tangible legal consequences, says Marcela Rios, an investigator with the Latin American Faculty of Social Science, a think tank in Santiago.
"We have an extremely conservative society and political elite," says Maria Antonieta Saa, a congresswoman for the Party for Democracy, which is part of Bachelet's ruling left-wing coalition. She says there isn't an appetite for opening a pandora's box on abortion because there is no group or social movement in Chile appealing for abortion rights.
"It's not surprising that the president doesn't want to open this debate because it isn't a debate Chilean society is asking for," says Saa.
Bachelet has made ratifying the CEDAW protocol a priority, and she was pushing for a vote in the coming weeks. But that was before the emergency contraception pill controversy erupted. The combination of these two heated issues may now put a dent in her efforts to advance her lauded women's empowerment agenda, which includes free child care for working moms, anti-discrimination legislation and affirmative-action laws to increase political representation.
Jen Ross is a Chilean-based freelance journalist who delves into social issues affecting women across the Americas.
For more information:
CEDAW's concluding comments to Chile progress report:
The Emergency Contraception Website:
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