Leftist Chilean lawmakers lodge abortion bill in Congress

Campaigners shout slogans during a demonstration in the Chilean capital Santiago in support of abortion campaigners in Argentina, on August 8, 2018

Leftist opposition lawmakers in Chile on Tuesday presented a bill in Congress seeking to legalize abortion in the conservative South American country, weeks after a similar bid in Argentina was narrowly defeated.

Abortion in Chile was decriminalized under the previous leftist government in a landmark vote in Congress last year but only in cases of rape or in medical emergencies.

Thousands of people marched in Santiago last month demanding legal, free abortion, in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

"It cannot be that women are taken to jail for having an abortion. We believe in motherhood by choice," Maite Orsini, of the leftist Democratic Revolution party, told reporters after presenting the bill.

She arrived in Congress sporting the green bandana that became a symbol of the abortion rights campaigners in Argentina.

A group of lawmakers wearing blue bandanas -- a symbol of the anti-abortion lobby -- said they would present a bill "to protect the life of the unborn" in the constitution.

"It is a sad day for Chile," said conservative deputy Juan Antonio Coloma, representing the so-called "Front for the Defense of Life."

The right-wing government of President Sebastian Pinera said an abortion law is not on its agenda.

"It is not part of the platform. ... There are priorities that are of greater importance to the people," said Health Minister Oscar Santelices.

- Close fight -

The legislative battle over abortion promises to be tight, as both houses of Congress are highly divided. Both sides of the debate will need to form alliances.

Campaigners have been galvanized across Latin America after Argentine lawmakers approved a bill to decriminalize abortion, before the measure was voted down in the Senate earlier this month. Lawmakers will now have to wait a year to resubmit the legislation.

Currently, abortion is allowed in Argentina in only three cases, similar to Chile and most of Latin America: rape, a threat to the mother's life or if the fetus is disabled.

The bill had sought to legalize abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and would have seen Argentina join Uruguay and Cuba as the only countries in Latin America to fully decriminalize abortion.

It is also legal in Mexico City. Only in the Central American trio of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua does it remain totally banned.

The leftist lawmakers lodged the bill in Congress almost exactly a year after legislation championed by former socialist president Michelle Bachelet removed Chile from a small group of countries where abortion is not allowed under any circumstances.

According to health ministry data, 359 abortions were carried out under the new law between September 2017 and July 16, 2018.

- Not far enough -

However, several organizations have said last year's decriminalization doesn't go far enough.

According to a report Monday by the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) "the vast majority of women in Chile - more than 97 percent according to some estimates -- continue to be deprived of the right to a legal and safe abortion."

The minority of people that can access an abortion under the new law "faces numerous restrictions, as well as the attempts of the authorities to limit the implementation ofthe law," the Paris-based federation said.

A protocol in the law allows health workers and institutions to invoke conscientious objection to refuse to participate in an abortion.

Shortly after taking power in March, Pinera's conservative government reduced the requirements demanded of private institutions which receive public funding to justify a decision to refuse an abortion.

However, at the request of opposition lawmakers, the government accountability office -- the office of the Comptroller General -- considered this breached the law and forced the government to propose a new initiative that would again prohibit conscientious objection in publicly-funded private organization.