Cultural Switch-Ups: Reproductive Rights in Chile

May 22, 2017

When you see Instagram posts of people’s study abroad experiences, you never see the 2 a.m. Wednesday night faces of desperation as gringos try to decipher jumbled streams of slang and typos in different languages. You don’t see your fellow type-A Hoyas throwing their Google Calendars to the side as they beg their new classmates to pick a time to meet for a school project that is not the same day it’s due—literally. Perhaps these problems are over-inflated for me because I’m studying abroad in Latin America, where the “tranquilo” mentality reigns (translation: stay eternally calm in the face of all life’s hiccups and wrecking balls). But in Chile, while working on a group project is frustrating, it has presented a very different view into the culture of my classmates. In a group of five Chileans, all around my age, two of them have children.

At first, I assumed it to be an exception that two of my group members had children (one is an adorable nineteen months, while the other is a rambunctious five-year-old), but when I broached the subject with my host mother and other Chileans, it quickly became apparent that it is fairly common. In our program here, a good number of U.S. students live with families that have host sisters and their children (and sometimes their boyfriends) who also live with the family. In the Catholic country of Chile, it’s far more frowned upon to use contraception than to “shack up” with your family after you have a baby. Though, of course, abstinence is preferable.

The situation here seems worlds away from the struggles at Georgetown, where we can’t buy condoms on campus but can right down the street. And with the amazing efforts of H*yas for Choice, most of us have access to some form of contraception in Red Square. While I’m hardly saying it’s a perfect situation, considering the abominable list of demands from new health care bills that are hacking away at our reproductive health care coverage—need I mention the new American Health Care Act—the situation in the States is much sunnier compared to the situation in Chile. At the heart of the Chilean issue is the illegality of abortion.

Chile remains one of six nations in the world where abortion is illegal. Four of those nations lie in Latin America, and the other two—Malta and Vatican City—are in Europe. While geography and the Catholic culture clearly play a role in the nature of the abortion laws in Paraguay, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, Chile’s laws against abortion have deep historic ties. Before the Pinochet military dictatorship in 1973, therapeutic abortion had been legal since 1931. Therapeutic abortion is defined as abortion that is deemed medically necessary. Abortion by choice was not permitted (the norm at the time), but any woman who had the approval by two doctors in Chile could get an abortion legally and with relative ease. It was banned in 1989 under the regime. The ban was written into the constitution and requires a two-thirds majority in the National Congress to amend it. Due to the intensive role of the Catholic church—namely extremist arms of the Church such as Opus Dei—the human right of abortion has never been given back to the people of Chile.

Chile has a female president, Michelle Bachelet, who in between her presidential terms served as head of UN Women. Despite this fact, the effort to legalize abortion has so far been unable to attain the two-thirds majority in both the upper and lower houses of congress. In October 2016, the lower house voted that abortion should be granted in Chile for the first time in the extreme cases of risk to the mother, fetal endangerment, and sexual violence. The vote goes to the upper house sometime in 2017.

Before I came to Chile, I read through my many packets of information preparing me for culture shock and bizarre slang. Within my fifty page handbook was a whole section on contraception in Chile, specifically the necessity for American students to bring their own contraceptive methods with them. Having studied Chile, I wasn’t surprised. But walking about grocery stores and pharmacies here is interesting: condoms are always behind some form of plastic or glass, if not behind the counter where you have to ask for them. Plan B requires a doctor’s prescription—which means using your insurance and probably seeing a family physician. And here, not notifying parents of your appointments and medications while you’re still on their plans is not really “a thing;” my host sister scoffed at me over dinner the one time I asked.

I’ve talked with many Chileans here, across generations, from those in my classes to my host mother. Though my host mother openly says she has used natural contraception for 20 years, she acknowledges how lucky she was never to have become accidentally pregnant. She talks about the need for contraceptive access and appears to be very happy that access has opened up in the last seven to eight years. While crucifixes swing from many necks, and “diga no al aborto” stickers are stuck to cars, many believe that the bill will pass this time.

The fundamental thing that is often forgotten in government chambers is that the bills that get argued about have real life ramifications. I’ve never asked my new friends if they planned or would have chosen to have a baby in their teens if given the option, but I firmly believe in a world in which people have that option. To me, reproductive rights have always meant the right to a choice, nothing more than that. Choices have never meant judgement. My friends’ kids are beautiful, and they’re growing up loved, and we are (probably) going to turn in this class presentation on time. But I’m not ready to be a parent now, and I wasn’t at 15. I appreciate beyond measure the choices I have that allow me to determine when I am ready.

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