Criminalization of Abortion in Chile: Pinochet’s Patriarchal Legacy

After calling a special session to decide whether or not to begin the process of decriminalizing therapeutic abortion, last night the Chilean Senate postponed its decision until April’s general session.  Opponents argue that legalizing therapeutic abortion—terminating a pregnancy when it endangers the mother’s health or in cases of a severely malformed fetus (and not, as some extremists have claimed, in cases of Down’s Syndrome) will lead to the legalization of abortion in other cases.  Senators on the center-left, and even on the far left, have been careful to maintain that therapeutic abortion will remain an issue separate from decriminalizing abortion in cases of rape or other circumstances (or, as I would put it, pure freedom of choice).

This is not the first time the abortion issue has been raised in the Senate in recent years.  In 2008, the Senate decided that the morning-after pill (levonorgestrel) should not be offered at public health institutions as long as there remained doubt that it caused abortion.  It could, however, be sold at pharmacies, and a 2004 law required that pharmacies keep it in stock (yet some pharmacies refused to do so, and were served with fines).  In other words, if a woman or young girl had the money to pay for it, theoretically, she could get it.  Yet in January 2010, then-President Michelle Bachelet signed into law the requirement that all public health facilities provide the contraceptive pill and the morning-after pill to any girl or woman over fourteen years old.

When considered alongside the incessant threats to cut federal funding from Planned Parenthood and the current polemic over mandatory insurance coverage for contraceptives in the United States, the Chilean debate over therapeutic abortion (and its relationship to the debate over public access to birth control and the morning-after pill) is a reminder of how much women in both South and North America have to struggle for control over their own bodies.

To understand the profundity of this issue in Chile, some historical context is in order.  In 1980, the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) criminalized abortion in the new constitution.   Chile still operates under the constitution bestowed upon it by the dictatorship.  This has ensured that the dictatorship’s patriarchal grasp, though re-articulated through the succeeding democratic governments, has extended past 1990.  Now, this is certainly not to say that all of the anti-choice are Pinochetistas.  But it is to say that we should consider the context in which laws such as this were made in order to fully understand the gendered relations of power that operate in society.

One of the most vociferous opponents of therapeutic abortion in the senate has been “La Ena” – Ena Von Bear – designated senator for the Union for Independent Democracy (UDI), who took the post of Senator Pablo Longueira in July 2011 after his resignation.  The UDI, Von Baer’s party, has a distinct historical connection to the law currently being debated.  The party was founded by Jaime Guzmán, who was one of Pinochet’s political advisors and the main author of 1980 constitution—the same constitution that criminalized abortion.

Pinochet, who apparently cared so much about human life, was responsible—along with his secret police and military officers—for torturing, disappearing, and executing tens of thousands of people whom he and the military junta deemed to be enemies of the state.  He and the junta justified this by appealing to National Security Doctrine. NSD, in the context of the Cold War, basically meant that when society appeared to be collapsing under the current government (especially if that government was Marxist or Marxist-friendly), it was the military’s duty to step in, restore order, and protect the public (and the United States would help out by training counterinsurgents to fight so-called “enemies of the state,” i.e, people associated, even if loosely, with the left).

As Lessie Jo Frazier has pointed out, NSD did not merely signify “securing” the nation on a greater, more abstract scale, but also in the home.  The nation was reflected, even based, on the family unit.  Many Chilean feminists and feminist scholars have argued that while patriarchy was certainly not invented by the Pinochet regime, the conditions of authoritarianism exacerbated it and produced the phenomenon of what Julieta Kirkwood called “a little dictator at home.”(See Frazier, “Gendering the Space of Death: Memory, Democratization, and the Domestic” and Julieta Kirkwood, Ser política en Chile. Las feministas y los partidos).

Yet In spite of this, a women’s movement flourished in Chile in the 1980s.  Women, both feminists and not, fought for the idea that a healthy body is a human right.  They fought for freedom from torture and political repression as well as from patriarchal control over their bodies.  Feminists believed that learning about the body—its symbolic and organic functions—would not only give women power to realize their agency at home and in the public sphere, but would also lay the groundwork for a more democratic Chile that could begin to break from patriarchal traditions.

Chilean women have fought patriarchy for years, and they are not to be labeled victims.  In fact, Chilean women, largely thanks to the women’s movement, have denounced the dictatorship’s sexual torture to a great extent and have, as historian Temma Kaplan has put it, “reversed the shame” that the dictatorship inflicted upon them.   (See Kaplan, “Reversing the Shame and Gendering the Memory”).

But many problems remain, such as freedom of choice.  And these issues are not just “women’s issues,” disconnected from the larger political and social picture.  As feminists in Chile and elsewhere have said, “The personal is political.”  Until we can have equality between the sexes, politics, the economy, and society will remain inherently unequal.  And until Chilean women have control over their own bodies—at least in choosing whether or not to terminate a pregnancy—that part of Pinochet’s patriarchal legacy will remain uncontested.

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