Abortion Hope, Abortion Despair: Perspectives from Chile

From the Series: After Roe

Bans Off Our Bodies NYC. May 14, 2022. Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Over the past six years, the abortion rights landscapes of Chile and the United States have moved in opposite directions with incredible speed and magnitude. In 2016, when I began my research on abortion activism in Chile, it was one of just a handful of countries with a complete abortion ban. Feminist activists and politicians working to change the law often asked me about abortion policy in the United States, as they viewed the protections granted under Roe v. Wade as a success story. Across Latin America, abortion rights have been gaining traction; yet in the United States, relentless antiabortion organizing, legal challenges at the state level, and a conservative high-court majority have increasingly restricted abortion rights and access. Today, Roe is gone, but Chilean activists have spent the past year actively working toward a constitution that includes abortion rights. Within these currents of hope and despair, what can we in the United States learn from Chile’s trajectory?

Chile has undergone dramatic social and political transformation in the past three years. In October 2019, a youth-led protest against a hike in subway fares in Santiago rapidly escalated into mass civil unrest and mobilization against economic inequality, government corruption, and state repression. What became known as the estallido social (social explosion) continued for months as Chileans critiqued the failure of institutions, largely seen as legacies of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship (1973–90), to meet the needs of citizens.

One key element of Pinochet’s legacy is Chile’s current constitution, which was instituted by the dictatorship in 1980 and is today largely seen by the public as a barrier to Chile’s democracy. The estallido social was successful in pushing lawmakers to create a new constitution, in a process that 78 percent of Chileans approved at the ballot box. A newly elected body of citizens, formed with equal gender representation among men and women, spent the past year writing a progressive text that would enshrine a range of social rights into law, address climate change, and attempt to rectify historical inequalities in the country. Despite overwhelming support for a new constitution, many Chileans expressed concerns about the document that emerged from the constitutional convention, owing to both its content and the practicality of its implementation. On September 4, 2022, the proposal was rejected by 62 percent of voters, leaving looming questions about future possibilities for constitutional reform.

Although the draft was ultimately rejected, the process of the constitutional convention offered an unprecedented opportunity for abortion rights organizing, as activists advanced a vision of constitutionally protected sexual and reproductive rights. Just a week after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe, Chile’s proposed constitution stated that all persons have sexual and reproductive rights, meaning they have the right to make decisions about their own bodies with regard to sexuality, reproduction, pleasure, and contraception. Significantly, the document also declared that the state will “guarantee access to information, education, health care, and the benefits required for this purpose, ensuring the conditions for pregnancy, voluntary termination of pregnancy, voluntary and protected childbirth, and motherhood” (emphasis added).

Some participants in the abortion activist networks I work with see a clear separation between the direct activism they do (accompanying individuals through the process of terminating an undesired pregnancy) and the political effort to change the legal status of abortion. Yet the estallido social and the constitutional convention prompted many activists to share their experience-based knowledge about abortion with the public and to use their platforms to promote more progressive goals for the constitution. This shift reflects the difference between doing activism in times of pessimism and crisis versus in times of optimism—a key distinction between the positionings of Chile and the United States at this historical moment. When demand for abortion assistance is high (now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic), it can feel impractical, even impossible, to focus on legal reform on top of providing essential care. For activists in the United States after Roe, part of the challenge will be finding and championing paths forward for legislative protections that seem feasible in the current political climate, while managing a crisis situation and meeting heightened need for care.

The potential of the constitutional referendum to rapidly transform abortion politics in Chile offers two important lessons. First, it highlights the importance of legislative rather than judicial protections. In light of the impermanence of Roe, it was especially powerful to read the language of sexual and reproductive rights written into the very framework of Chile’s draft constitution. Second, it reminds us that constitutions are meant to be documents that work for the people. The US Supreme Court’s new conservative majority, coupled with conservativism’s ongoing attachment to originalism, leaves progressives increasingly feeling like the constitution traps the United States in a naively nostalgic vision of the past. I am not suggesting the solution must be a brand new constitution (Chile’s rejection of the proposal speaks to the immense challenges of that process), but Chile’s constitutional convention demonstrates that when a diverse group of citizens has the opportunity to reimagine how their government might effectively serve its people in the world today, new priorities and protections can emerge. Chile may not have uncovered the version that works for all its people, but the convention process has ignited an important national dialogue about rights and institutional commitments in both theory and practice.

Last year, the cofounder of an abortion accompaniment network in Santiago told me that while she believed abortion would be legal in Chile in five years, the work of her organization would continue. In addition to accompanying women through their abortions, they would begin a process of accompanying the implementation of a new law, guaranteeing that it translated into safe and accessible care. With the rejection of the proposed constitution, legal abortion remains a future aspiration, but her network has already begun to expand their activist goals. In the days since the referendum, they have stressed that the constitutional convention was a learning process, and that they will use this experience to continue the fight. Their message is clear: Women, we will continue to help you have abortions; politicians, you will continue to hear women’s voices and abortion experiences in political debates.

At a time when US abortion politics feel bleak, Chile’s proabortion momentum gives me hope—and perhaps provides a map for future abortion advocacy work in the United States.