The Abortion Bill: Civil Rights Agenda Versus Values Agenda


Claudia Dides, Sociologist, Master in Gender Studies at Universidad de Chile. Director of Corporación Miles Chile

Translated by Natalia Tranchino

In Chile, therapeutic abortion legally existed between 1931 and 1989, a period in which abortion was socially accepted. It was in its last years that the “Congress” made up of four generals of the military dictatorship repealed article 119 of the Health Code which allowed it, thus penalizing it through the modification of articles 342 to 345 in the Penal Code. As a result, this penalty for the interruption of pregnancy without exceptions led to the Chilean state’s neglect of its obligations in relation to the rights of women. Today, at last, we have a Chilean Congress that has approved, this last September, a law that sanctions abortion in specific cases, which constituted a great advance in terms of the guarantee and protection of reproductive rights of women and children. However, under any other circumstances, other than the three causes specified in the law, women are still being forced to look for the fulfillment of this procedure in uncertain and clandestine conditions, which affects integrally their health and right to decide.

This abortion legislation was achieved after a three decade long absence of democratic debate on the issue, on behalf of Parliament as well as Chileans in general; this in spite of an on-going fight on behalf of civil society and some Parliamentarians to make it happen.

When the government presented the project, an intense and dramatic political and ideological debate opened up in Chilean society, adding to other debates on other rights demanded by Chileans. This debate took place within a broader process of deep transformation with regards to the sexual and reproductive practices of Chilean women and men since the 1990’s, which came to question the social order and the “consensus on sexuality” shared within Chilean society. The latter has manifested itself through diverse and controversial public policies like, for example, sexual education, the prevention of the HIV/AIDS, divorce, emergency contraception, the recognition of sexual diversity and the debate on abortion.

At the same time, these transformations have introduced new principles, values and speeches that together rearrange the relation between body, sexuality and reproduction; these phenomena are faced with new problematic knots which have stirred the need of some social groups to raise what is known as a value agenda. Indeed, this agenda has been urged by the most conservative sectors – which, by the way, do not relate directly nor necessarily to the political positions of the Right, but rather cut across the entire Chilean political spectrum. These groups express themselves through political-ideological speeches connected with a certain way of conceiving reality and social order. Accordingly, the meanings that are expressed in the value agenda are assumed to be “true” and, therefore, as natural, “essentialist”. These universes of meanings operate as sense organizers of the human acts, establishing the limits of what is allowed and legal, and attempting to discipline behaviors, in particular those of women.

Chiefly, the stagnation, and backwardness, of the attitudes with respect to sexuality and reproduction in Chile is linked to the intervention of conservative agendas expressed by different institutional actors, particularly religious and political.

Over the last years, the presence of conservative groups in these debates has been accentuated. This situation is not peculiar to Chile; in fact, it has to do with processes at the global and regional level. The leaders of the Catholic Church have determined the dogmatic and religious parameters with regards to sexuality because of the importance granted to its normative discourse, which has become an almost obligatory reference point.  The upper echelons of the evangelical churches have also joined in; constituting in some countries a parliamentary presence, a phenomenon that is beginning to happen in Chile, which would explain the traces of fundamentalism that are worrisome with respect to our democracy.

This value agenda is opposed to the agenda of rights, which has been built on grounds of the recognition of women as subjects of rights. The latter process is based on  transformations within the private realm that have modified the social value assigned to sexuality and reproduction. As a result of the different modernization processes, a central element has arisen, which makes the exercise of rights in this field possible, like the separation between sexuality and reproduction, which ultimately has an impact on a woman’s decision-making process. It is about a new way of seeking autonomy for women and, therefore, a questioning of the systems of gender domination in these fields. Thus, it may be said that the “right to decide” is one of the greatest advances, in spite of the well-known difficulties and obstacles.

The civil rights agenda, which is grounded on autonomy, freedom and the right to choose, began in the 50’s and 60’s, with an increasing concern regarding population and development on the part of the more developed countries. Then it continued through the 2000’s, when sexual and reproductive rights were recognized as part of universal human rights. The defenders of this agenda are mainly feminist and women’s movements together with NGOs that defend human rights, etc., followed by individual states, which sign successive agreements.

Sexuality and reproduction are political to the extent that they have gone beyond the private sphere and have become issues concerned with citizen’s rights that the state must guarantee through the implementation of public policies that accord with the reality of the population, and through the development of mechanisms that can guarantee the civic, social and political rights of female and male citizens.

What is in dispute in both agendas, and which was clearly expressed in the Chilean debate surrounding the new abortion law, has been autonomy, free will and the freedom to decide within the framework of a secular state. That is to say, the capacity that each person, in this case women, has to adopt norms and criteria that allow the construction of an individual will expressed in multiple behaviors and respectful of other people’s autonomy. Ultimately, it is about assuring that the rights of each person are recognized without having to give up their own identity, their desires and projects.

As has been stated, autonomy and will represent the unifying thread and the most important components in a person’s life, inasmuch as they are conducive to the treatment of others in an egalitarian way, which finally builds respect for the capacities of the other, the essential feature of a democratic order.

In the debate on the abortion bill, these two agendas have coexisted, and they respond to completely opposite interests. Nevertheless, the rights agenda enjoys wider support among the citizenry.  An expression of this is the abortion bill’s 72% approval rating.

Without a doubt, what lies at the core of these two so very dissimilar agendas are the same foundations for the universal recognition of these rights. The value agenda is constituted from arguments that appropriate the correct interpretation of certain rules that must be respected by nature; a kind of revealed -and therefore unquestionable- truth. On the other hand, the rights agenda is characterized for resorting to reason when seeking consensuses that contribute to the recognition of diversity, as well as of a state that is guarantor of universal ideals such as freedom, justice and equality within the framework of democratic societies.

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