A protest this January in support of loosening Chile’s abortion ban. Courtesy MILES.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence say they want to ban abortion in the United States. But they seem to have a hazy idea of what that will actually mean. Millions of people around the world know all too well what happens when abortion is criminalized: 25 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with very restrictive abortion laws. On this episode, we bring you a dispatch from one such country, Chile, where abortion is completely illegal. While abortion is banned for everyone in the nation, the reality is much different. As three Chilean women explain, whether or not you can safely get an abortion in the country comes down to one thing: money.
• Big thanks to Carolina Vera of Chilean abortion-information hotline Linea Aborto Libre, Fernanda Marín of reproductive rights group MILES, and journalist Estefanía Sepulveda for taking the risk to talk with us for this show. Estefanía is also a volunteer with Chile’s Observatorio Contra el Acoso Callejero—an anti-street harassment group.
• To read journalist Estefanía Sepulveda’s original reporting on what it’s like to get a clandestine abortion in Chile, read her work in the newspaper El Mostrador.
• The voice you hear dubbing Spanish to English on this episode is excellent audio producer Sarina Fong.
• The photo featured on this episode is from a March 8th International Women’s Day protest that involved members of Miles. It is used courtesy of Fernanda Marín.
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SARAH MIRK: Hey, listeners. Just a heads up, on today’s episode we’re talking about abortion. In that context, the last half of this episode includes some discussion of rape. There’s no graphic detail, but it might be triggering for some people. So, just a heads up. Take care of yourself.
This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
I’m really lucky, in that for most of my life abortion has been a legal right across the United States. And for most of my life, I took for granted that this issue was resolved in the past. Sure, there were big, upsetting campaigns to stigmatize abortion–those horrible billboards I remember and protests outside Planned Parenthood–but the basic fight over whether abortion should be legal was one for the history books. My parents’ generation worked hard for that fundamental right, and they won it. And now we would move slowly but steadily into the future.
Yeah. Right. I was wrong.
These days, abortion rights in the United States hang in a more precarious balance than they ever have in the last 40 years. Over the past decade, right-wing legislatures in states from Maine to Arizona have passed laws that make getting an abortion more expensive and more complicated. They’ve passed laws whose sole goal is to shame people who get abortions, like by making them get ultrasounds of the fetus.
And we now have a Vice President who says Roe w. Wade, the groundbreaking 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion a right nationwide—the one that I grew up reading about in my school books as some sort of past era that’s all resolved now—our Vice President says that decision should be consigned to the quote “ash-heap of history.” A year ago when he was Governor of Indiana and not occupying a wing of the white house, Mike Pence signed into law sweeping restrictions on abortion access in the state, including a provision that required aborted fetuses to be buried or cremated, like some sort of horrible mini-funeral. Ugh.
For his part, Donald Trump, seems…mm…hazy on what criminalizing abortion actually means. He says over and over that abortion should be banned, but when someone like Chris Matthews asks him directly what that means for U.S. law, he gives rather incoherent answers.
[recorded clip of Trump]
DONALD TRUMP: Uh look. Uh–
CHRIS MATTHEWSARAH: [voice raised] This is not something you can dodge.
[talking over each other]
TRUMP: It’s a– No, no. It’s not–
MATTHEWS: If you say abortion is a crime, or abortion is murder, you have to deal with it under the law. Should abortion be punished?
TRUMP: Well, people in certain parts of the Republican party and conservative Republicans would say yes, they should be punished.
MATTHEWS: How about you?
TRUMP: Uh I would say that it’s a very serious problem, and it’s a problem that we have to decide on. Uh is it’s very–
MATTHEWS: But you’re for banning it.
TRUMP: I mean are you gonna say– Well, wait. Are you gonna say, “Put them in jail?” Are you, is that what you’re [unclear; talking over each other]
MATTHEWS: Well, no, but I’m asking you.
TRUMP: What about?
MATTHEWS: ‘Cause you say you wanna ban it. What’s that mean?
TRUMP: Well, I I would I am against, I am pro-life, yes.
MATTHEWS: What is ban, how do you ban abortion?
TRUMP: I am for life.
MATTHEWS: How do you actually do it?
TRUMP: Well, you know, you’ll go back to a a position like they had where people will perhaps go to illegal places.
TRUMP: But you have to ban it.
SARAH: Make no mistake, banning abortion will mean sending people to jail when they get abortions, or when they perform them. That’s not, like, a gray area that should be hard for the President to understand.
This all brings up the question: Do Republicans know what will happen if abortion is, once again, made illegal? Do they actually know what that means? Many people know all too well.
What’s the punishment if you do get an abortion, if you’re somebody that goes to the hospital, let’s say, and a doctor thinks you’ve had an abortion? What’s the punishment for that? How long can you go to jail for?
ESTAFANIA SEPÚLVEDA: If you’ve never had a problem with the police or the law, it can get up to three or five years of prison.
SARAH: That’s Estafania Sepúlveda, a Chilean journalist.
ESTEFANIA: Hi, my name is Estafania Sepúlveda, and I work as a journalist for El Mostrador, a Chilean news website.
SARAH: I spent a month in Chile this winter and wound up talking to many feminists there about abortion rights.
Chile is a country that’s a lot like the United States in some ways—young people there know more about House of Cards than I do—but abortion is entirely illegal. This is the kind of country that Mike Pence and other Republicans want to create, a country where getting an abortion will land you in prison. Chile is far from alone. While there are only six countries in the world that ban abortion with no exceptions, like Chile does, there are many, many countries where it’s very hard to obtain a legal abortion. According to abortion access group Women on Web, about 25% of the world’s population lives in countries with super restrictive abortion laws, from Ireland to Egypt. But it’s especially interesting to focus on Chile right now, because the country is on the cusp of change. After 30 years of trying, reproductive rights advocates are finally on the verge of passing a law that would legalize abortion in some cases.
For this episode, we’re taking a look at this reality in this one country, Chile. What happens in a country where abortion is criminalized? Who bears the punishment? How does it affect peoples’ lives?
Donald Trump seems willfully ignorant about the details of what banning abortion will mean. So let’s talk about it.
Okay, so we’ve got to start with some basic history here. The ban on any and all abortions in Chile is a legacy of dictatorship.
In case you’re fuzzy on your Latin American history, here’s the background: In 1970, a socialist leader named Salvador Allende won the presidential election in Chile. His government promised to expand abortion rights and access. But he never got the chance. The United States, under President Nixon, was secretly spending millions of dollars to fund groups that opposed his government. This was the middle of the Cold War, remember, and the CIA was freaked out about a socialist winning an election. With the support from the CIA, a military general named Agosto Pinochet staged a coup. President Allende was assassinated, and Pinochet ruled as a brutal, murderous military dictator for the next 17 years. His government issued a law banning all abortion in the country.
When Chileans voted out the dictatorship in a peaceful referendum in 1990, Pinochet stepped down from being the ruler. But the Constitution he put into place remained intact, abortion ban and all.
ESTEFANIA: That has been the situation ever since a year ago, ever since the democracy was back in our country. We’ve been trying to pursue law projects, and they haven’t been successful. They are always telling us that not having kids is not the right way because they need more people to be a workforce.
SARAH: The efforts to legalize abortion over the last 30 years have been fought really hard by Catholic groups. Catholicism holds a big sway in Chile. About 66% of people identify as Catholic there. So once it was put in place by the dictatorship, changing the law on abortion has been an uphill battle, to say the least. Negative media coverage in the country has also shaped public opinion around abortion in a huge, huge way, says Estafania.
ESTEFANIA: They make you feel like you’re a murderer, and if you don’t have the strength the need or the information that you need, you’re going to leave that. Because the public media and TV, ever since I was little, I thought that having an abortion was something terrible, and it was like killing someone because the propaganda and the publicity and all those things showed you that it was something terrible to do.
SARAH: I talked about this with a political scientist and reproductive health educator named Fernanda Marín.
FERNANDA MARÍN: My name is Fernanda Marín, and I work at an NGO called Miles Chile that is based here in Santiago in Chile. We do a mix of activism, political activism. We’re feminists. And we also do projects and research. That’s our job, and we fight for reproductive and sexual rights here in Chile.
SARAH: Fernanda has the really interesting job of running workshops for students and health professionals about reproductive and sexual rights.
FERNANDA: What we mainly do is we do special workshops that are centered on clarifying values.
SARAH: I asked Fernanda why she thinks Chile has not changed its abortion laws since the time of the dictatorship. She said something really insightful: people don’t think of abortion as a medical issue. It’s not framed as a public health issue; it’s framed as something for the church to decide.
FERNANDA: Our culture is very linked, and it’s very imprecated with religious beliefs, mainly Catholic. The thing that we most hear is, “It was her fault. It was the women’s fault.” And it’s very, it’s sad. They don’t really see that it could happen to anyone, that mistakes are around the corner, that accidents are always bound to happen.
SARAH: Plus, says Fernanda, sex education in Chilean schools is nonexistent. So people don’t get the chance to learn about the medical facts of how pregnancy, birth control, and abortion work.
FERNANDA: And education in Chile is not that great. We don’t have sex ed. There is not great services that give contraception, and it’s a huge problem. Sometimes the same people that are in charge of doing this, they don’t even know how real it is, I think.
SARAH: That sounds familiar right about now to anyone from the United States, I’m sure.
So that’s the law and the history behind it. No abortion. Period. It’s impossible. It’s illegal.
But the reality is different.
People have been performing abortions for all of human history. Making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it. As Chile’s experience shows, when abortion is illegal, one thing determines whether or not you can safely get the procedure: money.
SARAH: Does it feel like the law is different if you’re rich, or if you’re poor?
CAROLINA VERA-BURGOS: Yes. 100%.
SARAH: More than maybe anyone else, Carolina Vera-Burgos knows the flip side of Chile’s abortion laws, the reality rather than what’s officially in the books.
CAROLINA: Mi nombre es Carolina Vera-Burgos, y soy Licenciante.
SARAH: She’s the head of Linea Aborto Libre, a free hotline that provides information about abortion.
CAROLINA: [through a translator] For us, it’s important to talk about abortion and to give information to women who need to interrupt a pregnancy within twelve weeks of gestation. That’s our job, to give information to women who want to get abortions.
It’s your body; it’s your choice. It shouldn’t be anyone else’s decision, especially a man’s.
SARAH: The hotline volunteers walk a fine line: it’s not illegal to talk about abortion methods and how they work. It is illegal to tell someone where they can actually get one. From all the phone calls she receives, it’s obvious to Carolina how the system works in a country where abortion is illegal.
CAROLINA: Yeah, obviously, the poor women die, and the rich women go on vacations to Europe or Uruguay or whatever place where they have contact with family, or a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, and they can get an abortion and pass it off as vacation.
SARAH: The poor women die; the rich women go on vacation. It doesn’t get more straight-forward than that.
So leaving the country to get abortions abroad is one reality when abortion is illegal. Another option, if you have money, is to go to a private clinic that secretly performs them. Journalist Estefania Sepúlveda explains how this works:
ESTEFANIA: Because there are clinics and hospitals that are private that will not tell you publicly that they will perform abortions. But they just put it under other names such as having an appendix or a spontaneous abortion.
SARAH: Getting an abortion in a private clinic is extremely expensive, and more than that, you need to know someone. They don’t advertise or use code words. So usually the doctor is an upper-class friend of the family, says Estefania. That’s exactly what Carolina’s seen, too.
CAROLINA: It’s a class issue. Obviously, it’s a class issue. Here in Chile, there are clinics where you can go, and for two million pesos, you can get an abortion. They’ll check you in under whatever name you want and say you had appendicitis. Rich women get abortions without the risk of death; poor women also get abortions, but they risk death to do it.
SARAH: The existence of these private clinics is an open secret, one that people in the government hate to admit. Last year, Chile’s Health Minister Helia Molina called out the double-standard in the abortion law in an interview. In support of legalizing abortion in some cases, she said, “In all upper-class clinics, many conservative families have had their daughters abort. People with money do not need laws because they have the resources.”
People went ballistic about that statement. She was forced to resign.
ESTEFANIA: So it’s something that we all know, but it’s something that no one wants to take care of.
SARAH: For people who can’t afford to leave the country on “vacation” and who can’t afford to secretly get an abortion at a private clinic, there’s a scarier and more dangerous option: a DIY abortion.
I guess in my mind I thought of clandestine abortions as happening like they do in historical documentaries or in fictional movies, with a literal coat hanger or under the scalpel of a dirty knife wielded by Tobey Maguire in Cider House Rules. That does happen, but these are modern times, says Carolina. Almost everyone who calls Linea Aborto Libre has one question: Where can I get the pills?
The pills are Misoprostol, a medication that was invented to treat stomach ulcers but that, it turns out, also induces abortion. When taken correctly, it’s a relatively safe way to get an abortion when you have no other options. But the risks are real in Chile because the only way to buy it is on the black market.
CAROLINA: Whenever we’re talking to the women, we try to be as delicate and loving as possible because obviously, they’re going through a really bad time.
SARAH: Hotline volunteers will send women to resources—like the website for international abortion-rights group Women on Waves—that explain how the pills work, how to identify them, and what side effects they can expect. But they don’t tell people where to buy the pills. Nowhere is 100% safe in Chile.
CAROLINA: In Chile, I can’t trust anyone. Many women turn to the illegal market, and therefore, really high prices. They sell pills that are fake.
SARAH: In other places, the wholesale cost of Misoprostol is about $2 a dose. But Carolina says that women tell her all the time in Chile that it costs $120-150 a dose. That’s a week’s income if you’re working for minimum wage in the country, a big expense.
According to the World Health Organization, Misoprostol is about 80% effective at inducing abortions before 12 weeks. But there can be complications, and you have to take a series of pills at the right time. Even if everything goes perfectly, getting an abortion this way, without the help of any doctor, can be scary. You start bleeding, and some of the side effects are nausea and vomiting. And if something does go wrong, in Chile going to the hospital can mean going to jail.
ESTEFANIA: Because if you run across a doctor who’s a Catholic, they are going to tell the police that you have broken the law. And that’s another thing that we have to think: First of all, I don’t wanna have this baby, and second of all, if I try not to have this baby, then I’m gonna go to prison. So that’s a lot of pressure to put into just one women.
SARAH: This has led to a whole movement in Chile called con amigas y en la casa, “with friends, and at home.” It’s a feminist network of women who will go to the home of someone who’s inducing an abortion and just sit with them, supporting them through the process and keeping an eye on out for any potentially dangerous side effects.
Estefania interviewed someone who’d accompanied their friend through an in-home abortion. She told me what the experience was like.
ESTEFANIA: It’s really hard to put into words because it’s like having the most intimate experience with a friend, having something that is so secret and so pure and that would help out a friend with such sacrifices that you’re facing. So she describes it as an experience that made her friendship stronger.
SARAH: So that’s the reality when abortion is illegal. Friends come together to support each other. People step up in really brave and compassionate ways to care for and educate others. But class divisions draw a line that can mean life or death.
After 30 years of trying to revise the abortion ban, this spring, reproductive rights advocates are closer to change than they’ve ever been. The President, Michelle Bachelet, has promised to support a law that would legalize abortion in three situations: Cases of rape, fetal inviability, and threat to the life of the mother.
The group Fernanda Marín works for, Miles, helped craft the law. She says while their end goal is to one day have abortion be legal for all reasons, they started with these three causes out of political necessity.
FERNANDA: It was a political strategy mainly. Because our country is very, very conservative, and the idea of having a project that it would have freed abortion in all causes was simply impossible. I mean, now that we have this project, we’re fighting like lions for it, and it’s only three causes.
SARAH: A poll in January showed that 71% of Chileans support the proposed “aborto tres causales” law. Support for abortion under any circumstance is lower: about 40%.
In January, the Congress took a preliminary vote on the measure. It was an intense day. In Chile, the Congress votes first on whether to pursue the mere idea of a bill. Then, once the bill is actually written, they vote again. Estefania reported on the preliminary vote in January. She says the scene at the Congress that day was a spectacle. Religious groups had organized pregnant women to stand outside the Congress with big megaphones pressed to their bellies, to project the sounds of fetuses’ heartbeats.
ESTEFANIA: The idea is just to create that scenario in your mind, like I can’t get an abortion because I’m killing someone. At first I was not really hopeful that this would be approved because it’s been madness. All the arguments and messages from the politicians that are anti-abortion are just crazy. But then, as the hours went by, I saw that there was a very strong belief that this would be something that could be real.
SARAH: The majority of the Congress voted support the bill: The first win for abortion rights activists in Chile in decades. Big news!
ESTEFANIA: And at the end of the day, because there were a lot of hours, I was happy. But I wasn’t cheering because I still know that there are three causes, and what we want to pursue is free abortion for all.
SARAH: Now comes another test: Congress will start discussing the details of the law this April. Fernanda is worried, but hopeful.
FERNANDA: We’ve been counting votes, and we don’t have enough votes to pass it. So we are actually doing advocacy, a lot of advocacy work, with the senators because we need this law to be passed.
SARAH: The biggest opposition to the law, say Fernanda and Estefania, is politicians who don’t want to support the right to abortion in the case of rape.
ESTEFANIA: There’s a lot of senators that have stated that they’re not gonna be supporting the rape cause. So that would mean a step back, definitely.
SARAH: What is their argument there? I mean, to me it’s just so mind-blowing to think that somebody would not support the right to abortion in the case of somebody being raped. What kinds of arguments do you hear, and what do you come up against when you try and talk to people about this law?
ESTEFANIA: Well, all kinds of arguments, but most of them are linked to religion. So basically, first and foremost, the child has no problem in terms of their health. So why should we kill a human being that has all the possibilities of living? That’s one of the first arguments that you hear. And second of all, they don’t take into account the traumatic experience of being raped, and they always focused the attention on the fetus that is treated like as a human being that has no right to be assassinated. And they try to compare it with child homicide.
SARAH: When you hear that kind of argument, what do you feel? How do you try and talk to somebody who thinks that?
ESTEFANIA: It’s really hard to maintain a conversation with people that are so close-minded because they’re not thinking about the women.
SARAH: Fernanda says that right-wing politicians have asked them to revise the law so that in order to legally get an abortion in the case of rape, you would have to report the rape to the police. Fernanda says that would be both offensive and a dangerous idea.
In her workshops, she’s heard many stories of women for whom it wouldn’t be safe to go to the police. She told me the story of one teenage girl.
FERNANDA: She told everyone that she could not denounce to the police about her sexual assault because a big narco–a big drug dealer–of her community had raped her. And if she denounced him, he would go and kill [her] family, for example. So situations are very different, and we don’t believe that a person is obliged to denounce something if she doesn’t want to.
SARAH: Making someone report rape to the police in order to get an abortion is the antithesis of trusting women with their bodies and healthcare, says Fernanda.
FERNANDA: First of all, because we have to believe in what women say, is that you cannot be– I mean, a person who has been raped, a woman who has been raped, cannot be criminalized over and over again by telling her story, by going to the police, by reporting to the authorities. Psychologically, it’s torture, and besides, what they say–their argument–is that every women will go to a hospital and say, “Oh, I was raped. I need an abortion.” And we have to have a bit more faith in women. We have rights. We are subjects of rights, and I don’t know. It’s a horrible argument, I think. It’s discrediting everything that we believe in, that we as feminists believe in, that we as humans believe in, I think.
SARAH: This spring, we’ll see if Chile finally starts to shed the stance toward abortion that was written under the dictatorship. But whatever happens with the law, Carolina will still be waiting by the phone.
CAROLINA: If it passes, cool. If not, fine, because women are going to be getting abortions the same as they do today, yesterday, and in the past. Women will keep getting abortions in Chile.
SARAH: Listening to these women talk about life in a country where abortion is illegal, it’s impossible not to make parallels to the United States. A lot of these same realities exist in our country already. Even though abortion is supposed to be protected nationwide, all those laws that nix federal funding for insurance coverage of abortion, that close clinics, that make people get mandatory ultrasounds all make abortion more expensive. That creates a class division where poorer women have fewer safe options.
In the United States, it’s a sad situation that many people turn to Google for their reproductive healthcare. The Guttmacher Institute tracked Google searches for how to do a DIY abortion and found that there are many more people searching for information on how to self-induce abortion in states that have a lot of abortion restrictions. The state with the highest rate of Google searches for self-induced abortions is Mississippi, which now has just one abortion clinic. This isn’t some dystopian future for the United States. These things are happening right now.
The Republicans now in charge of the White House say they want to ban abortion, but they don’t want to talk about the grim, dangerous, and unequal reality of what that looks like. Criminalizing abortion means criminalizing a fundamental family value: The right to determine when and if you have children, the right to determine the size and shape of your family. This is a right that we’re not going to give up, regardless of what the President says.
If you’re looking for a transcript of this show, you’re in luck. Cheryl Green of StoryMinders transcribes all Popaganda episodes. The transcript is available on our website, BitchMedia.org under the Podcast tab. We’re proud to make the podcast accessible to people who are D/deaf or hard-of hearing.
Huge thanks on this episode to Carolina, Estefania, and Fernanda for taking the risk to talk with me openly about abortion rights in their country. Also thanks to Sarina Fong. That’s her voice you heard dubbing Spanish into English. If you are looking for more information about how to obtain an abortion in a place where abortion rights or restricted, or if want to support the work of people who provide safe abortions in those places, I recommend checking out the international groups Women on Web and Women on Waves.
Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Bitch is an independent, non-profit feminist media organization. We’re entirely funded by our Beehive members, subscribers, and like-minded sponsors. So if you liked today’s episode of Popaganda, please become a member online at BitchMedia.org today. Let us know you liked the show in your order comments.
Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue.Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward. Thanks for listening.