Chile Has Relaxed Its Abortion Ban, But Does That Go Far Enough?

Chile no longer shares the notoriety of being one of the few countries in the world where a young girl can be forced to carry her rapist’s child to term.

Pro-choice activists march in Santiago, Chile on July 25, 2017. Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Chile eased its complete ban on abortion. Abortion will now be permitted when the pregnant person’s life is in danger, the fetus is not viable, or the pregnancy is a result of rape.

All this means that Chile will no longer share the notoriety of being one of the few countries in the world where the life of a fetus is prioritized over a woman’s life, or where a young girl can be forced to carry her rapist’s child to term.

Those who want to deny women access to abortion—in Chile, the United States, and elsewhere—often claim they are protecting them from so-called trauma resulting from their abortions. As a Chilean-born social psychologist researcher who has been studying the effects of abortion on women for about seven years, I was asked by a human rights lawyer at a university in Chile to submit an amicus brief and to present, in front of Chile’s Constitutional Tribunal, any evidence of such a phenomenon.

In the amicus brief and presentation, I noted that the idea that abortion causes psychological trauma has been systematically refuted. Every rigorous review on this topic, including those conducted by major mental health organizations in the United States and Europe, have found no evidence that abortion leads to mental health harm.

The latest evidence on abortion and mental health comes from the U.S. “Turnaway Study,” which compares the outcomes of women who received abortions to those of women who were denied them. My colleagues and I have authored more than 30 articles using data from this study. We found that women denied an abortion suffered worse mental health outcomes initially. Soon after being denied an abortion, these women had more symptoms of anxiety, lower self-esteem, and less life satisfaction. By six months to a year after the initial denial of access to care, both groups were similar; women in both groups improved over time.

Women who had an abortion were no more likely to experience symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress, than women denied an abortion.  The most common reason women gave for any symptoms of post-traumatic stress was experience of violence and abuse, not the abortion. Yet, the myth that abortion causes mental health harm is persistent and used to defend laws that restrict women’s access to abortion.

Furthermore, the criminalization of abortion has not eliminated abortion in Chile or anywhere else it has been banned or restricted. In Chile, the prosecution of women who have an abortion has meant that many women, particularly those with few resources, seek clandestine procedures. These women report living in fear of experiencing complications, dying, or being imprisoned—which likely has negative consequences on their mental health. Hundreds have been prosecuted; most have children and are poor.

Chile’s constitutional tribunal opened up its courts last week to hear evidence from more than 135 organizations in support of or in opposition to the constitutionality of the proposed law. The entire country and world were invited to watch the live coverage of the court’s proceedings, a true demonstration of democracy and transparency. After sifting through the evidence, the court’s decision to support this law is a huge victory for the women of Chile. It marks a moment when women’s voices were heard, where the evidence was weighed, and women were trusted to make their own decisions about their bodies.

While this is an important victory to celebrate for women, I will continue to be concerned for the women left to clandestine procedures. The number of women who will directly benefit from this law is sure to be small. Along with overcoming the tremendous stigma that comes with wanting an abortion in a country that has condemned it for nearly three decades, women will have a number of additional barriers to accessing care. First, their desire for abortion will need to fall under these three very narrow circumstances, and Chile is unlikely to consider further relaxing the law. Second, they will need to find a provider that can affirm that their health is really in danger, that the fetus is in fact not viable, or that the pregnancy is the result of rape. For some women, this barrier will be insurmountable, particularly for those living in rural areas where access to clinicians with such specialized expertise is limited. Finally, women will need to find a provider who can perform an abortion, in a country where health professionals have little training or experience in doing so or who may not be willing to offer it.

As a researcher, I believe that consideration of laws restricting the provision of medical care should take into account the effect on women’s health and well-being as determined by sound empirical research. Findings from the Turnaway Study demonstrate that that allowing women to get the abortions they want can help them escape poverty, leave violent relationships, and achieve aspirational life goals.

Chile’s constitutional court heard the evidence and voted in favor of allowing women to make their own decisions in the most limited of circumstances. Meanwhile, El Salvador, a country that denies and imprisons women who seek abortion, is considering easing its complete abortion ban as well. Women who are suspected of procuring an abortion are being charged with homicide; some are currently facing prison sentences of up to 50 years. The practice of sentencing women and adolescents who choose abortion due to rape with longer prison sentences than their rapists—as is the case in El Salvador—is inhumane and disrespectful to women’s health and dignity.  It still remains to be seen whether El Salvador will look to Chile as it considers opening its doors to policies that protect women’s health and rights, rather than treating women and children as criminals.

It’s time that policymakers weigh the evidence on the effects of abortion on women and their families, and trust women to make their own decisions.