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  • Sarah Staniforth

The decreasing influence of the Catholic Church is a catalyst for Chile’s progressive abortion laws

The last few years have been eventful for reproductive rights in Latin America. The region’s abortion laws are some of the most restrictive in the world — abortion on request is only available in Cuba, Uruguay and Mexico City, and an estimated three-quarters of abortions performed in the area are unlawful.

For years, feminist activists have spoken out against the laws, arguing that they constrain women’s autonomy and put their lives in danger. But increasingly, they are actually being listened to. One recent example is the lifting of the ban on abortion in Chile last March, which serves as an interesting case study of the changing legal status of abortion in Latin America, raising a number of important questions. What led to the legislative change — can Chile provide a blueprint for abortion rights activists in other countries? Will there be a ‘ripple effect’ in the Latin American region, with other countries acting to liberalise their abortion laws? And did it go far enough?

As Socially conservative, even compared to other countries in the region, until last year Chile did not permit abortion under any circumstances, along with only three other Latin American countries: El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. In the rest of the region, abortion is available, but only within exceptional circumstances, such as in cases of rape. Michelle Bachelet, the country’s centre-left President of the time (and Chile’s first female president), changed Chile’s law in line with the norm in Latin America, allowing abortion in cases of rape, when a fetus is unviable, and when the life of the mother is at risk.

In Chile, the declining influence of the Catholic Church, feminist mobilisation, and international pressures on the country to meet global human rights targets all appear to have been contributing factors to the change in the law.

The political power of the Catholic Church is an important common denominator in hostility to abortion across Latin America. The majority of people in the region identify as Catholic, and if there’s one matter on which the Catholic Church has made its stance on incredibly clear, it’s abortion: life begins at conception, and the abortion of a foetus is therefore equivalent to murder. And as The Holy See enjoys Permanent Observer status in the UN, it is able to exert its Catholic influence upon the organisation’s decision-making.

Aside from asserting its stance publicly, the Church has also exerted influence in private, with the Pope having reportedly personally requested that anti-abortion legislators lobby against Argentina’s recent unsuccessful abortion liberalisation bill, which proposed to make elective abortion legal for the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Chile’s abortion legalisation bill received fierce opposition from the Catholic Church. However, there is evidence that its stronghold is decreasing: the percentage of Latin Americans identifying as Catholic has decreased substantially since 1995, from 80% to 59% in 2018.

Some point towards the decreasing power of the Catholic Church as a catalyst for progressive abortion reform in Latin America. In Chile specifically, although the Church has historically been highly influential, the country is no longer Catholic majority: while 74% of Chileans identified as Catholic in 1995, only 45 per cent did in 2017. A contributing factor has been child sexual abuse scandals, which have led to growing distrust of the Church in Chile.

On the other hand, however, trust in the Catholic Church has increased in neighbouring Argentina, where abortion rights were recently subject to a historic legal debate. Furthermore, not all arguments advanced against abortion in the Latin American region are religiously rooted. In Chile, secularist arguments for abortion play a role in the opposition to legal reform as well as religious ones. So the relationship between religiosity and liberalisation does not appear to be a linear one.

The growth of feminist movements in Latin America should also be considered as a factor in Chile’s legal reform. Recent years have seen feminism’s popularisation, not only in the West, but in the Global South, too. Chilean women have never been passive victims of oppressive patriarchal laws, but feminism gaining clout internationally has meant that matters of sexual politics are becoming increasingly recognised as belonging in the political arena.

While the liberalisation of abortion law is undoubtedly a victory for reproductive rights advocates in Chile, unfortunately, the majority of Chilean women who fall pregnant remain ineligible for legal abortions, meaning that the fight for reproductive autonomy is far from over. Only allowing abortion in exceptional circumstances means forcing millions of women to keep pregnancies they don’t want. Women should have the right to access abortion purely because they don’t want to be pregnant, whatever their reason might be — because every person who is capable of becoming pregnant deserves to be able to make an informed decision about what they do with their own body.

Chile’s ruling will hopefully influence the remaining countries in Latin America that ban abortion outright to amend their laws, although the failure of Argentina’s bill suggests that this will be far from easy. But while Chile’s reform is a beacon of hope for women in the Latin American region, it doesn’t go far enough.

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