Michele Bachelet, who became Chile’s first female president in 2006 and led the country for the next four years, was re-elected in a landslide on Monday. She’ll take over from the conservative Sebastian Pinera, and leftists hope that her return to power could advance some more progressive goals in the South American nation — perhaps, for instance, easing the total abortion ban that’s currently in place.
Chile is one of the seven countries in Latin America — along with the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, Suriname and El Salvador — that ban abortion entirely, without any explicit exceptions for cases when a pregnancy is endangering a woman’s life. In addition to denying women reproductive autonomy, those laws have led to the imprisonment of hundreds of women who are suspected of attempting to induce an illegal abortion. For years, Amnesty International has pressured these nations to amend their draconian abortion policies.
The Guttmacher Institute’s research has found that harsh bans on abortion don’t actually lower abortion rates. Instead, they simply encourage women to risk their lives to end a pregnancy illegally. An estimated 47,000 women around the world die each year from unsafe abortions.
This past July, Chile made national headlines after denying an abortion to an 11-year-old rape victim who became pregnant from prolonged sexual abuse perpetrated by her mother’s boyfriend. Doctors warned that forcing the young girl to continue the pregnancy could be traumatic for her body, but she had no other options under the country’s stringent anti-abortion laws. During that controversy, Bachelet indicated that she would work to amend the abortion ban if she won the presidential election. “The option of abortion, in this case, for rape, seems to be the right solution,” Bachelet said in a radio interview at the time.
So, now that she has won, is change on the horizon?
Perhaps. Bachelet, who has spent the past several years heading the UN’s agency for women’s rights, has pushed to advance other reproductive health policies in Chile. In 2006, she approved a new law making emergency contraception available at state-run hospitals. Although she got significant push-back from Catholic leaders — who compared her administration to a “totalitarian regime” attempting to regulate its citizen’s private lives — Bachelet pointed out that too many of the country’s births are concentrated among poor mothers under the age of 18, and she wanted “to guarantee that all Chileans have real options in this area.”
And the president-elect’s most recent campaign also suggested that she’s getting bolder specifically on abortion policy. During her first run, Bachelet didn’t really mention her support for loosening the country’s harsh abortion ban. But this time around, she brought it up more frequently.
There are also some signs of progress on this issue on the international stage. Ireland, another country that used to ban abortions in all cases, finally added an exception to its harsh policy in June, following global outrage about a woman who died after being denied an emergency abortion. Reproductive rights advocates praised Ireland for updated its abortion policy for the first time since 1867, but continue to push for more access to this critical type of reproductive health care.
The same type of push forward in socially conservative Chile will likely be an uphill battle. This past year, the legislature rejected three different bills that would have amended the total ban. And the Associated Press points out that there was a relatively low voter turnout for this week’s election — so even though Bacehlet cinched a decisive victory, she may still “lack a clear mandate to push for radical change when she begins her second turn in the office next year.”