April 5, 2018 / 8:26 PM / 3 months ago

Chilean women's lives at risk with 'backdoor' restrictions on new abortion law

BOGOTA, April 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women and girls in Chile, including rape victims, will find it harder to access legal abortions - after a total ban was lifted in August - as the government has started allowing clinics to deny services on moral grounds, campaigners said on Thursday.

The new law, allowing abortions when women’s lives are in danger or if a fetus is unviable or the result of rape, was welcomed by rights groups in a region with some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws.

It legalised abortion for the first time in Chile, one of several Latin American countries that had a total ban.

But Chile’s health ministry announced in March, when the conservative government of Sebastian Pinera took power, that private clinics could refuse to carry out the procedure on grounds of conscientious objection.

“This move by the new health minister is meant to create a lot of barriers,” said Marge Berer, international coordinator at the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion.

“The use of regulation change while avoiding the congress is really backdoor stuff,” she said, referring to the fact that only parliament has the right to amend laws.

Health minister Emilio Santelices has said he is not undermining women’s rights by allowing private health clinics and hospitals to deny abortions on moral or religious grounds, including facilities receiving state funds.

He has said that he is clarifying guidelines in the law about conscientious objection by detailing which institutions can deny services on those grounds.

“We want to clarify that the abortion law ... is a law that we as an authority will fully comply with,” he said on the health ministry’s website.

Campaigners say the move, which has revived debate on abortion in the Catholic nation, marks a set back for women’s reproductive rights as it places barriers in their way to receiving a legal abortion.

Several lawmakers, together with rights group Miles Chile Corporation, have asked the Comptroller General’s Office, an independent watchdog in Chile, to decide whether the ministry’s actions are illegal or not.

Minister Santelices said healthcare providers who refuse to perform abortions must refer a woman or girl to a facility that will carry out the procedure and pay for her transport.

But women and girls in small communities where there are few healthcare providers will struggle to find services, said Lidia Casas, law professor at Chile’s Diego Portales University.

“Conscientious objection is an obstacle,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It has consequences for women and girls.”

The first person to have a legal abortion in Chile was a 12-year-old rape victim in October.

More than 100 women have undergone legal abortions in Chile since September, 50 of them because the pregnancy was a threat to their life and 26 because of rape, according to health ministry figures reported by local media.

In El Salvador, where abortion has been banned since 1997, a new bill to allow it under certain circumstances is expected to be introduced within days by the ruling leftist FMLN party. (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Katy Migiro. (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)

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