Time to Stop Pressuring Chile to Legalize Abortion

Opinion   |   Bill Saunders and Mary Novick   |   May 11, 2012   |   11:56AM   |   Santiago, Chile

Chile has suffered repeated pressure to liberalize its abortion policies at the hands of international bodies in the name of achieving international goals to reduce maternal mortality rates. A new study which came out of Chile this month—highlighting a decreasing maternal mortality rate despite Chile’s prohibition on abortion—should serve as a defense against this pressure.

Even though a right to abortion cannot be found anywhere in international law, and no United Nations treaty can be interpreted accurately to create a right to abortion,[i]  the CEDAW Committee (the UN committee created to interpret the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)) has attempted to coerce Chile to liberalize its abortion laws time and time again. On each occasion the Committee pressures Chile to decriminalize abortion by using the justification that Chile must do this in order to reduce its maternal mortality rates.

This notion that greater access to abortion will decrease maternal mortality is pervasive among abortion advocates and international bodies as evidenced by the three instances in which the CEDAW Committee pressured Chile to liberalize its abortion laws.

In 1995:

“The Committee recommends a revision of the extremely restrictive legislation on abortion, taking into account the relationship between clandestine abortion and maternal mortality.”[ii]

In 1999:

“The Committee is especially concerned at the laws prohibiting and punishing any form of abortion. This law affects women’s health, increases maternal mortality…”[iii]

In 2006:

The Committee “remains concerned that abortion under all circumstances is a punishable offence under Chilean law, which may lead women to seek unsafe, illegal abortions, with consequent risks to their life and health, and that clandestine abortions are a major cause of maternal mortality….”[iv]

Setting aside the fact these actions by the CEDAW Committee to pressure a sovereign nation to change its abortion policy are totally illegitimate and outside of the authority of treaty monitoring bodies,[v] the idea that increased access to abortion will decease maternal mortality rates is a fallacy and should not be used to influence abortion policy. The study conducted on behalf of the Chilean Maternal Mortality Research Initiative and published this month illustrates this point.

The Chilean study found that maternal mortality rates did not increase after abortion was made illegal in 1989 as the CEDAW Committee asserts. In fact, the maternal mortality ratio decreased by 69.2%  in the fourteen years after abortion was made illegal—dropping from 41.3 to 12.7 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.[vi]

Not only does greater access to abortion not decrease maternal mortality, but it may contribute to it. The study found that the leading cause of death for a pregnant woman between 1957 and 1989 was abortion, [vii] and after this the leading cause of maternal demise was not directly related to the obstetric care, but more commonly related to pre-existing chronic conditions.[viii] In 2007—the last year included in the study—the mortality ratio for “unspecified abortion” (induced or spontaneous) was only 0.83 per 100,000 live births.[ix] This data shows that the 1989 law criminalizing abortion has not put women’s lives at risk as the abortion advocates would have you believe.

The study found that the factor that had the greatest impact on lowering maternal mortality was education. In 1965, Chile put in place an education program that was free and mandatory. It was after this point in time that the researchers saw a significant decline in maternal mortality. Other factors that helped influence the decline were delivery by skilled birth attendants, reproductive behavior, and the implementation of a prenatal primary care program.

Today, Chile has a lower maternal mortality ratio than the United State and it has the lowest maternal mortality ratio in all of Latin America.[x] It should be held up as an example of a country that values and protects both the mother and the unborn child—not bullied by international bodies because it does not accept their ideology.

Chile is one of the countries that are profiled in Defending the Human Right to Life in Latin America, an AUL publication that will be available this summer. Defending the Human Right to Life in Latin America includes legislative guidelines for Latin American nations as well as profiles of the pro-life policies in several countries.  Look for it at www.AUL.org.

[i] San Jose Articles, San Jose, Costa Rica (March 25, 2011), Article 5. Available at, https://www.sanjosearticles.com/?page_id=2

[ii] Concluding Observation of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women: Chile, (February 3, 1995), Paragraph 158. Available at, https://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/28b24fb3d30e5795c12563e2003c062c?Opendocument

[iii] Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women: Chile, (June 25, 1999), Paragraph 228. Available at, https://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/fb9a29fc254dc72fc125695a004b3c02?Opendocument

[iv] Concluding Comments of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women: Chile, (August 25, 2006), Paragraph 19. Available at, https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw36/cc/chile/0647947E.pdf

[v] San Jose Articles, Article 6.

[vi] Koch E, Thorp J, Bravo M, Gatica S, Romero CX, et al., Women’s Education Level, Maternal Health Facilities, Abortion Legislation and Maternal Deaths: A Natural Experiment in Chile from 1957 to 2007, PLoS ONE  (May 4, 2012), at 9.

[vii] Id. 3.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id. 7.