“My Pussy, My Rules!” Why Chilean Women are Shoving Sharp Dirty Objects Up Their Vaginas

Women still face a five-year prison sentence for having an abortion in Chile. (Photo Credit: Fernando Lavoz/Demotix/Corbis via The Guardian)
Women still face a five-year prison sentence for having an abortion in Chile. (Photo Credit: Fernando Lavoz/Demotix/Corbis via The Guardian)

By Re

35 countries have amended their laws to expand access to safe and legal abortion services in the last two decades. Nearly all nations, or 96 percent of them, allow women to terminate their pregnancies to save their own lives, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis based on 2013 United Nations data—Chile is not one of them. Chile does not allow women to undergo abortions despite any circumstances; the draconian ban effectively forces many women to seek unsafe procedures.

“Women from rural areas, or from impoverished urban areas, will turn to the clandestine practices, which are much cheaper and usually do not have the conditions or the knowledge to practice the procedure safely. Some women will try inserting a sharp or dirty object inside the uterus or womb to induce abortion. That is very dangerous. There is a high risk of infection, heavy bleeding and even death. More and more, women and girls are using Misoprostol for medical abortions, which in the first trimester and with the correct information is safe. But this medicine is not easily available in most countries and the information can be confusing for many women, especially young women and women with less access to education,” said Amnesty International researcher on economic, social and cultural rights in the Americas, Fernanda Doz Costa. “The underlying causes of [unsafe abortions] are discrimination and the little power most women and girls have over their bodies and their lives.”

Chile’s 1931 health code legalized abortion in limited circumstances, but the country’s anti-abortion law was passed in 1989 during Augusto Pinochet’s regime and still says that abortion is illegal even when the life or health of the pregnant woman is at risk—even if she needs cancer treatment, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape. It’s been considered a crime against family, public order, public morality and sexual integrity in the Penal Code since 1874. El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua have also all banned abortions in all circumstances, or lack an explicit legal exception to save the lives of pregnant women.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, 62 percent of women aged 15 to 49 years old want to avoid a pregnancy. However, 22 percent of these women—23 million in 2014—are not using an effective contraceptive method, according to Doz Costa. But this is not the primary reason women are having unwanted pregnancies. An estimated 1.68 million women in the Americas are raped each year, but only eight countries in the region allow abortion in cases of rape.

“Abortion has been a controversial subject in Chile, and proposed legal reforms on abortion have sparked strong debate. Many arguments opposing its decriminalization are made on religious, ethical and moral ground. Nonetheless, societies gradually realize the importance of addressing the abortion issue and how essential it is for the protection of women’s rights to non-discrimination and equality,” said Amerigo Incalcaterra, regional representative for South America of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Women who decide to end a pregnancy can face different types of marginalization; it can be sensed in different spheres of everyday life. Women who have abortions experience stigmatizing attitudes in their own communities, in institutional settings (for example, in hospitals and healthcare facilities) in the media, in their relationships, etc. This stigma shames and silences them, and can lead to them resorting to unsafe and often life threatening conditions to go forward with their abortions.”

The only abortions deemed legal are “accidental” cases, and thus a satirical series of violently simulated how-to “abortion tutorials” was released on YouTube recently as part of a controversial campaign, ‘Miles Chile,’ a non-government organization in favor of women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

Director, Claudia Dides, said in an interview with EFE, “I have had two clandestine abortions,” citing health complications. “It’s torture what they are doing to the women of Chile, not allowing them to abort.”

“Walk calmly by the traffic light, wait, and when it is about to turn yellow, pick the car most likely to speed up,” says one pregnant actress before walking into oncoming traffic. “Make sure the car hits you head-on—stomach to bumper—and then cross the street.”

Another actress throws herself down the stairs, and another rolls her ankle, falling and landing on a fire hydrant that rams into her stomach.

Nearly 200,000 unsafe abortions occur each year in Chile, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and an estimated 120,000 Chilean women seek illegal terminations each year. Chile’s Public Prosecutor’s Office reported that in 2014 alone, judicial investigations were initiated into 174 cases of voluntary abortion involving 113 women. And, according to the Ministry of Health, more than 33,000 women are admitted to hospital in Chile every year for abortion-related causes. Of them, more than a tenth (3,600) of whom are girls between 10 and 19 years of age.

Though an estimated 70 percent of Chileans support abortion in specific cases, women still face a five-year prison sentence for having abortions.

President Michelle Bachelet, former head of UN Women, has made reproductive rights a central tenet of her presidency, vowing radical reform before her second term in 2013. In 2006, she attempted to legalize and subsidize the abortifacient morning after pill, but the law was overturned by the constitutional court in 2008.

“In January 2015, a draft bill was presented by President Michelle Bachelet, that intends to decriminalize abortion under three circumstances: in the case of non-viability of the fetus, in the case of a threat to the life of the woman and in the case of rape. The bill is currently under discussion in Congress,” said Incalcaterra.

Part of the current discussion also addresses the climate of fear among health professionals. The ban creates a two-tiered health system in which women are seen as mere child-bearing vessels or incubators, and health professionals are forced to report suspected abortion “crimes” rather than treating women and girls for their health complications, according to Doz Costa. The Code of Criminal Procedure states that health professionals who have any suspicion regarding potential abortions have a duty to report it. Despite Ministry of Health guidelines limiting this obligation, women who arrive at health centers with complications resulting from clandestine abortions run the risk of being reported to the authorities.

“A medical practitioner cannot be put into the impossible dilemma of letting a patient die without proper life-saving treatment or going to jail. In international human rights law, women’s lives and health are protected and states have the obligation to organize their legislation and services to comply with that obligation. Some states may decide to protect prenatal interest, but that can never be done at the expense of women and girls’ lives and health. It is a false dilemma from a human rights perspective,” Doz Costa has argued.

Indeed, it is important to understand this issue as a matter of women’s human right to life, health, privacy, equality and non-discrimination, Incalcaterra agreed.

“Chilean lawmakers should keep on fostering a space for debate and discussions that will lead to the review of the current restrictive legislation,” she said. “They must adopt and implement sexual education policies and family planning programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions. In addition, states must develop clear protocols so that abortion—when permitted—can be an available, accessible, acceptable and of good quality health service.”

Chile has the capacity to be a leader in the Americas. Argentina’s abortion laws, though less restrictive than others in Latin America, have also been criticized; the leading cause of maternal death—more than 30 percent—is complications due to clandestine abortions.

Likewise, El Salvador has been in the limelight for imprisoning women who’ve had miscarriages as well as other pregnancy-related “crimes.” “Shockingly, the ban [in El Salvador] extends even to cases where the life of the pregnant woman is at risk,” Amnesty International said in a statement.“Those too ill to safely carry a pregnancy to term face an impossible choice: trapped between potential jail if they have an abortion or a death sentence if they do nothing.”

Among the unfolded cases met with international disdain, a 10-year-old girl in Paraguay was forced to carry her fetus—the product of alleged repeated rape by her stepfather—to term.

But the Dominican Republic moved away from a total ban on abortion in December 2014, which resulted in more than 90,000 unsafe procedures performed each year. It was a move contested in courts, but they’ve amended their Penal Code to introduce the same three exceptions to criminalization being discussed in Chile.