Names have been changed.
It is the summer of 2012. My friend Marie and I are making plans to meet before she moves to Chile. We have just graduated and she will be taking an internship in Santiago. When we next see each other, she opens up to me about her experience trying to obtain emergency contraception, or the morning-after pill, at a local pharmacy.
The pharmacist told her there was no way she could get pregnant if she was on her period. But she did.
Ramiro Molina, a gynecologist and university professor, estimated that in 2015 between 134,000 to 150,000 abortions occurred in Chile—about 400 per day. Only 33,500 are performed in hospitals in a country of about 18 million. That’s because abortion has been illegal in Chile since 1989. It is one of only nine countries in the world where abortion is a crime: Chile is joined by five Latin American countries—El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Surinam—and three small European nations—Malta, Andorra and Vatican City. “It is a feminist duty to collect data and face it against the official numbers,” Begoña, an activist in Chile, told Ms. “So you do not want free abortion in your country? And how will you take care of all these cases, all these women who dodged your rules, these women you exposed to risk?”
According to Amnesty International, most abortion charges in Chile stem from cases that lead women to a public hospital. Women arrive because something went wrong and confess they were having a voluntary abortion. Doctors report them to the police. “There is a social class matter here,” Chilean activist Andy explains. “What usually happens is that women able to have an abortion on pills, which is the method we are familiar to, are women with access to information. And in this country, access to information is limited by social class.”
In the last six years, 289 women have been prosecuted for abortion. 93 of them were condemned, according to the Observatory of Equity and Gender. In 2014, out of a total of 174 men and women investigated for seeking abortions or providing abortion medication, 133 were women. Disproportionately, women are punished for needing abortions. The men furnishing them with pills or services aren’t facing the same fate.
In January, the Chilean Senate agreed to decriminalize abortions in three cases: Ending pregnancies that are the result of rape, situations in which the woman’s life is at risk and in case of fetal malformation. Most abortion cases will still be illegal, but this step could open a door for further legalization. Michelle Bachelet, whose presidential term ends in 2018, has shown support for decriminalizing abortions. In the meantime, activists like Begoña and Andy are doing all they can to ensure women who seek abortions can find care and support.
Begoña and Andy are members of Con Amigas y en la Casa (At Home with Friends), a supportive pro-abortion network based in Santiago but reaching the long Andean country. The network was created in mid-2016. Six months later, they have accompanied women to more than 1,500 abortions. They believe that “a safe abortion is a feminist abortion.” The network system is simply, but secure: Women reach out to a contact on Facebook or via email and the Amigas get back to them with information on how to end their pregnancies with pills and, above all, with warmth—and a voice to lean on over the phone.
Misoprostol or misotrol are not listed as drugs in Chile, but they share the same means in the not-so-black market and are easily found on Google. “The pills do not enter Chile through the legal way. They are not in public circulation,”explains Begoña. “How do women access to the pills? Buying them from illegal sellers.”
It is often a man who sells the pills. These days, they may use feminist buzzwords to make sales. Although misotrol is known for being safe, dealers often endanger women’s health by giving them incorrect instructions. Marie stayed home for two weeks on medical leave because the doses and instructions she got were faulty. It was hard for her to convince her boss that she had such a severe flu for so many days—but she could not tell the truth.
“Two girls in a week told us the same story,”Begoña told Ms. “They were told to do extreme physical activity, like squats and spinning. And so they did. Besides the pain they were feeling, they were also doing exercise. And the treatment did not work for them. You see what this magnitude of ignorance does.”
Most of women already have the miso pills when they reach the Amigas. Sometimes they call scared, uninformed and lonely. They might have paid ten times the real price. “We want every woman to know that the pills cost 20,000 pesos,” Begoña says. (That’s about 20 to 25 dollars). “The abortion pill market in Chile is illegal but there are safer and less safe ways to obtain them.” Methods range from reaching out to programs like Women on Waves, to finding someone in Sweden to send you the pills through the mail. The Amigas want male dealers with no respect to women’s bodies being the last resort. They also request ectographies, which will help them figure out if it is safe for a woman to administer the medication.
“I always say, somewhat joking, that I did not decide to accompany abortions—women found me,” Begoña recalls. “And I accepted.” The network came together when Begoña and Andy, who were doing this work on an individual level, found other women doing it as well. They built a network so they could share work, duties and knowledge. “When you strengthen yourself and declare yourself as a feminist,” Begoña said, “women see in you an ally.”
Their work highlights a necessity often missed when discussing abortion: A need for company. A need for support. A need for help. “It is worthless to have the pills,”Begoña declares, “but not someone on your side.”
Andy, who leads the reggeaton band Torta Golosa and performs songs like Lesbian Drama and Heterocuriosa, does this work because abortion is a part of feminism—regardless of whether women will ever need the Amigas. “Why do we lesbian feminists support abortions?” she asks out loud. “Because we can. Because we are against normative heterosexuality and imposed motherhood… Because as long as we are read as women, we can be raped.”
Throughout our interview, there is a word that keeps appearing in different forms. Begoña and Andy tell me of “women alone,” talk of loneliness, solitude and fear. “To be honest, abortion is the top of the iceberg,” says Begoña. “Talking about abortions is talking about their strength. I think it is one of the most complex issues I have faced as a pro-abortion feminist and as a companion: The solitude of women.”
They recall the stories of women who were too afraid to seek abortion care or even confide in their loved ones about their anxieties. Persecution in Chile against abortion does not only come from the police, religious and political groups. It comes from the media and the well of public opinion. It comes from the closest circle of relatives, friends or intimate partners a woman may have.
“The beauty about accompaniment is having the chance to converse with these women,” Begoña tells me. “They never thought about the possibility of being great. Accompaniment allows you to talk about all that that is not abortion.”