Press Release

IACHR Welcomes Approval of Chilean Law Decriminalizing Abortion on Three Grounds

September 5, 2017

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Mexico City - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) welcomes the decision of the Constitutional Court of Chile to reject the challenges to the constitutionality of legislation that will—once it is in force—allow women to have access to legal, safe abortion services under three circumstances: when the pregnancy is the result of rape, when the life of the mother is in danger, or when fetal abnormalities are incompatible with life outside the womb. The IACHR recognizes this decision as an essential step to respect and protect the human rights of women, girls, and female adolescents in Chile.

President Michelle Bachelet introduced the bill in January 2015 to decriminalize the voluntary interruption of pregnancy on three grounds. The aim was to provide treatment with dignity for women in critical life situations; enable them to make decisions freely about their pregnancy, providing legal and safe alternatives; and protect women from practices that jeopardize their life and health and may violate their rights. After the bill was passed by the Chamber of Deputies and by the Senate, two challenges to its constitutionality were filed; these were related to the three grounds and to the exercise of conscientious objection. On August 21, the Constitutional Court decided to reject both challenges, which means that legal and safe abortion services can now be guaranteed to all women, girls, and adolescents in Chile.

“The approval of this law recognizes the reality experienced by women in the country and ensures that a pregnancy can be voluntarily interrupted in a way that is legal, available, and safe, to protect the life and personal integrity of women, girls, and adolescents. This decision also contributes to the development of public health policies for Chilean women, in compliance with the country’s international commitments, and culminates a protracted democratic debate on the rights of women,” stated Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay, First Vice-President of the IACHR and Rapporteur on the Rights of Women.

Although the interruption of pregnancy for therapeutic reasons was legal under the 1931 Health Code of Chile, in 1989 the military government repealed Article 119 of the Health Code, thereby banning all types of abortion. The voluntary interruption of pregnancy was criminalized in all cases, with penalties of up to five years in prison, even when the pregnancy put the mother’s life at risk. According to figures from the Ministry of Health, there are more than 33,000 abortion-related hospital discharges every year, and Amnesty International estimates that more than 160,000 abortions are performed annually in Chile. Because they are considered crimes, procedures to interrupt a pregnancy are done in secret, without medical supervision or follow-up, which represents a grave risk of serious injury to bodily and reproductive organs, a risk to life and an overall risk to the health of women, girls, and adolescents .

“The right to sexual and reproductive health implies that women have the right to have access, without discrimination, to health services designed to address potential risks before, during, and after pregnancy. In the case of involuntary pregnancies that result from rape or incest, as well as pregnancies that pose a risk to a woman’s physical integrity, the State must protect the woman’s right to interrupt her pregnancy safely, legally, and voluntarily, as a guarantee of risk-free maternity and to protect the right of all women to health,” Commissioner Macaulay said.

During a thematic hearing held in the context of the 162nd special session of the IACHR in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Commission was briefed on the status of sexual and reproductive rights in Chile, as well as on the extensive democratic debate surrounding this draft legislation. Among the women, girls, and adolescents who die or are seriously harmed by unsafe abortions, migrant women, indigenous and Afro-descendant women, and women living in poverty are disproportionately represented. Decriminalizing abortion reaffirms women’s ability to decide how best to deal with the consequences of a pregnancy, based on their convictions and their circumstances. The approval of this law will provide women with access to information and professional health services, and safeguard their dignity, autonomy, integrity, and even their lives. With the support of more than 70 percent of the public, the Constitutional Court’s decision answers a longstanding demand to fulfill the fundamental rights of women in Chile.

In this way, the Chilean State takes a positive step toward complying with its international commitments and following through with the many recommendations made by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child; the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; and the UN Human Rights Committee, among others, to make the legislative changes needed to protect reproductive health rights in Chile. The State in turn is adopting a fundamental measure to protect the rights of women, girls, and adolescents to health, to personal integrity, and to non-discrimination.

The Commission on this occasion recognizes the State of Chile for adopting a key measure to advance the protection of the rights of women, girls, and adolescents through the approval of fundamental legislation to safeguard their sexual and reproductive rights and all their human rights. The Commission also urges the State to adopt prompt and diligent measures to ensure that this legislation is enacted quickly and to ensure that it is properly implemented to the benefit of all women, girls, and adolescents in the country.

In the case of States in the region that still do not have an appropriate legal framework in place, the IACHR urges them to adopt legislation designed to safeguard the effective exercise of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, cognizant that the denial of the right to voluntarily interrupt a pregnancy in certain circumstances can constitute a violation of the fundamental rights of women, girls, and adolescents. 

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and defense of human rights in the region, and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 133/17