Chile Becomes First Country in the Americas To Protect Abortion Rights in Its Constitution

Feminists are making sure that feminism will be one of the guiding principles of the new Chile—with legal abortion being one step towards forging this path.

A pro-abortion march in Chile on July 25, 2013. (Ashoka Jegroo / The Santiago Times)

With the recent inclusion of abortion rights in the Chilean Constitution, a first of its kind in the hemisphere, the growth of Latin American feminisms is seemingly unstoppable.

The movement for abortion rights across the continent is known as the “green wave” for its green bandanas, one of its main expressions. Historically a highly restrictive region for reproductive rights, Latin America has seen significant progress in advancing legal abortion. Since Mexico City’s legalization of abortion in 2007, many countries have joined this trend: Uruguay in 2012, Argentina in 2020, Colombia in 2022 and now Chile. However, with the inclusion of this right in its Constitution, Chile has gone much further than its peers. This step is even more surprising given that until 2017 Chile had a total ban on abortion. The cultural change that the feminist movement has brought to Chilean society is undeniable.

The legalization of abortion in Chile is part of this larger regional wave of feminism. However, there are also country specific conditions that made this significant step possible. As a result of a countrywide mobilization that began in October of 2019 to denounce the crisis of democracy and the increasing inequality, Chile is currently in the process of drafting a new constitution that will “re-found” the country. Every aspect of the political system is on the table for discussion. Having been at the center of these protests together with student and Indigenous movements, feminists are now making sure that feminism will be one of the guiding principles of the new Chile, legal abortion being one more step towards forging this path.

In 2016, while conducting field research for my book on abortion rights in Latin America, a feminist scholar explained to me why a total ban on abortion was still in place:

“Chile is not a conservative society as many claim, but it has a conservative political elite that is not in touch with the rest of society.”

In December of 2021, Gabriel Boric, a former student movement leader, won the presidential elections. He is 36 years old and represents a new Chilean left. It appears that the renewal of the old conservative political elite has begun. 

The path to create a new Chile is part of the country’s struggle to finally extricate itself from the legacy of the military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet, in power between 1973 and 1990. The 1980 constitution drafted under the dictatorship still rules the country. A political system that strengthens right wing views and moderate policies has been in place ever since, despite the transition to democracy in 1990.

The regulation of abortion is no exception: In 1989, Pinochet banned abortion under all circumstances right before leaving power. It was not until 2017 that the country was able to get rid of this ban and allow for some legal exceptions such as cases of rape, threat to the life of the woman and fetal malformations incompatible with life outside the womb. That legislative change took place under the administration of Michelle Bachelet (2006–10 and 2014–18), the first woman president.  

Fast forward to last year, when the Constitutional Convention began work in July of 2021, which embraced a feminist spirit of inclusion since its inception. It is the first convention in the world to ensure gender parity and to guarantee 17 seats for Indigenous peoples and a 5 percent quota for people with disabilities.

During its initial phase the convention was presided over by an Indigenous woman, Elisa Loncon—a significant symbolic step in a country whose politics has been dominated by European-white origin immigrants. The convention also showed a large representation from the left and independent candidates: 53 and 48 out of 155 seats, respectively. Right wing candidates gained only 37 seats, clearly showing the general desire for radical change expressed in the 2019 mobilizations.

Chile’s inclusion of the right to an abortion in the Constitution has shown the rest of Latin American countries that are still struggling with restrictive policies that total bans can be reversed.

To ensure society’s participation in the writing of a new constitution, citizens could draft popular initiatives that would be considered by the convention if they manage to gather more than 15,000 signatures. Seventy-eight popular initiatives surpassed this threshold, among them one advancing the legalization of abortion proposed by the feminist network Permanent Assembly for the Legalization of Abortion.

On March 15, 2022, the convention discussed this initiative and voted 108–39 to grant sexual and reproductive rights to all individuals including “the right to decide freely and autonomously with adequate information over our bodies”—guaranteeing women and all who can get pregnant the right to interrupt a pregnancy and to safe voluntary motherhood. The full draft of the Constitution is expected to be ready in July, when a popular referendum will take place to accept or reject the new founding document, and with it the right to interrupt a pregnancy.

Not unexpectedly, the inclusion of legal abortion in the Constitution raised significant opposition among conservative and religious sectors. They immediately set out making exaggerated and incorrect claims to discredit the legislation, for example stating that the convention had legalized abortion until the ninth month of pregnancy. This is far from the truth. What actually took place was a statement of overarching principles, as happens in all constitutions. As with all other principles, a bill in Congress will later follow to regulate the specifics. It will be then that legislators will define the specific circumstances in terms of time and requirements to have access to the constitutional right to abortion.

Chile’s inclusion of the right to an abortion in the Constitution has shown the rest of Latin American countries that are still struggling with restrictive policies that total bans can be reversed. And that the feminist wave is taking over not only the more secular countries like Uruguay or more progressive areas like Mexico City, but also in those spaces in which religious institutions held strong influence until very recently.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Cora Fernández Anderson is Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of "Fighting for Abortion Rights in Latin America. Social Movements, State Allies and Institutions" (2020).