Is Chile About to End Pinochet's Abortion Ban?

By Simeon Tegel

    LIMA, Peru - When doctors told Karen Espindola three months into her pregnancy that her son had a brain defect, her initial reaction was searing grief.

    But even as she sobbed in the hospital waiting room - surrounded by other expecting moms anxiously looking forward to giving birth - she decided to press ahead with the pregnancy.

    A 23-year-old call center worker, whose partner had abandoned her upon hearing she was pregnant, Espindola resolved to love her son regardless of whether he had Down's syndrome or some other genetic condition.

    Two weeks later, after further tests, she received the calamitous news.

    Oswaldo, her son, had been diagnosed with holoprosencephaly, a rare brain condition that would leave him severely physically disabled and with a life expectancy that would run to early childhood at most.

    It was only at that point that she decided to enquire about getting an abortion.

    What she learned devastated her. Chile is one of just six nations in the world, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York, which have blanket bans on abortion, permitting them in no circumstances, even if the mother is at the point of death.

    Those six countries are the tiny Mediterranean island state of Malta plus five from Latin America: Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

    That may be about to change. Michelle Bachelet, a socialist pediatrician who recently won re-election as Chile's president after four years running the United Nations Women initiative, has vowed to revise the national abortion ban imposed by General Augusto Pinochet in 1989 in one of his last acts as dictator.

    Her campaign program promised the "decriminalization of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy in cases of danger to the mother's life, rape or an unviable fetus."

    That may be all conservative Chilean society - divorce only became legal in 2005 - will accept at the moment, believes Claudia Dides, head of local group Miles, the Spanish acronym for the Movement for the Legal Interruption of Pregnancy.

    "It is a first step. These three causes are the most basic, but there is still no acceptance of a woman's right to choose regarding her own body," Dides says.

    "Chilean society still needs to have the debate about allowing abortion more widely. To a developed country it might seem like we are still in the Stone Age but this is our reality."

    Either way, the news comes too late for Espindola.

    Oswaldo died in 2011, after two years of suffering with a laundry list of nasty health conditions, including quadriplegia, microcephaly, epilepsy, hormonal problems, and chronic malnutrition.

    Throughout his short life, Espindola says, Chile's health care system failed him. Private insurance was no help as Oswaldo's conditions were all "pre-existing," while he faced long waits for treatment in the country's creaking public health network.

    Espindola remains too traumatized to talk about her experience. But by email she told GlobalPost that she expected Bachelet to fulfill her promise to overturn Chile's abortion ban, writing: "There is no excuse."

    She added: "Each and every day that passes without the decriminalization of abortion in these cases represents one more day of abuses and torture against Chilean women who, at any moment, can find themselves caught up in one of these tragic situations."

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