by Lieta Vivaldi 

In Chile the bill that allows abortion on three grounds – when a woman’s life is in danger, when there are foetal anomalies incompatible with life, and in the case of rape – was approved, after a long discussion, in August 2017 and then published in September the same year. In December 2017, the right-wing candidate Sebastián Piñera was elected President and this caused concern among feminists regarding the actual implementation of the law, which is already very limited, especially when the Minister for Women, a conservative female politician, took office. This concern was proved to be warranted, because many barriers have been enacted in order to hinder the right to abort. In this sense, the ‘anti-gender’ campaigns have had a strong influence.

In this post I will discuss the anti-gender phenomenon in Chile, which has commonalities but also particularities with other countries of Latin America and also Europe.[1]  Specifically, I will explore the ways in which the attack toward ‘gender ideology’ have impacted upon the abortion debate and the implementation of the legislation in Chile, discussing some of the challenges feminist activists are facing today with regards the monitoring of the law and the fight for free abortion. A Spanish version of this post is also available here.

Outside wall of a building with a row of poster stickers in blue and pink that read No + ideología de género in all capital letters
Photo credit: Paula Hollstein

‘The Ideology of Gender’: A bit of Context

There have been several publications and ongoing research projects about the phenomenon of ‘gender ideology’, its origins and socio-political impact in current political debates. In this piece I would like to emphasize, though, some aspects of the term that speak to the realm of sexual and reproductive rights, which are particularly relevant to understand Chilean sexual and gender politics.

Generally speaking, ‘gender ideology’ has been used ‘as a label representing the demands and theories of those who ‘deny nature’ and consider sexuality as part of a social construction’. According to the Catholic Church, genders are ‘real’ categories which are challenged by the social constructionism of ‘gender ideology’. Additionally, there is a defence of the ‘culture of life’ against the ‘culture of death’, the latter being defined by John Paul II as a ‘selfish concept of freedom which sees procreation as an obstacle to the development of one’s own personality’. In this way, ‘all the demands that seek to expand the legal spaces for non-reproductive sexuality are deemed as belonging to ‘gender ideology’ and as manifestations of a culture of death’. Contraception, sexual diversity demands and abortion are all part of this ideology. The condemnation of abortion in particular seems central because women are deemed to be not fulfilling the role that they are supposedly called to: ‘natural’ reproduction. Indeed, abortion entails the recognition of the separation between sexuality and reproduction and the challenge to natural roles, according to which woman’s distinctive one is reproduction and motherhood.

New Conservative Attacks on Feminism as ‘Gender Ideology’ and the New Act in Chile

Conservatives (mainly the religious Right and some sectors of the centre Left) in Chile have tried to block any initiative to expand and recognise sexual and reproductive rights. They have reacted against certain events, especially regarding the sexual education of children: the launch of a book published by the Chilean government in 2014 called Nicolas tiene dos papás, (‘Nicolas has two dads’) as well as a sexual education handbook launched by Santiago’s City Hall in 2016 called 100 preguntas sobre sexualidad adolescente (‘100 questions on teenage sexuality’), the distribution of the Emergency Pill to minors, the discussion of the Gender Identity Bill, and so on.[2] In July 2017, when the abortion bill was discussed, a bus called Bus de la Libertad (Freedom Bus) drove through Chilean main cities carrying messages against the imposition of ‘gender ideology’ in the school system. This bus was used for the first time in Spain with the slogan ‘Los niños tienen pene y… las niñas, vulva. Que no te engañen’ (‘Boys have a penis and … girls, a vulva. Don’t be fooled’). The bus was jointly brought to the country by the Spanish-based organisation CitizenGo, Padres Objetores de Chile (Objectors parents of Chile) and the Observatorio Legislativo Cristiano (Legislative Christian Observatory), an otherwise unknown group with evangelical roots.

Despite Chile being one of the least religious countries of the region, experiencing an increasing secularisation, it is crucial to notice the strong influence of religious ideas in sexual and reproductive rights policies: through the State and political parties, and working in complicity with think tanks and the civil society. The Pope’s visit to Chile in January 2018 was characterised by much less participation than expected, which some suggested shows that the Catholic Church is not as popular as it was. However, there are different ways in which this influence is actually practised. For instance, there are political parties formally affiliated with religious groups, as in the case of the Christian Democrats or conservative right-wing parties. Additionally, a group of evangelical people has been elected in the parliament, creating the so-called bancada evangélica (group of evangelical legislators), which even though is small in numbers, it created a strident opposition to any attempt to challenge conservative positions. But the relationship is not always formal; there are novel ways in which conservatives exert pressures on politicians.

Regarding the recently approved abortion Act, conservatives lobbied constantly throughout the discussion in order to prevent its approval or at least limit its effectiveness. Indeed, they managed to change some important aspects that restrict or preclude access to abortion. For instance, they managed to impose mandatory reporting in the case of rape; to expand the definition of conscientious objection; to impose compulsory support and counselling which sometimes could be persuasive of not having an abortion, and to limit medical confidentiality. During the first year of the law being approved, the number of abortions actually performed was around 555, much less than the 2,500 procedures initially predicted.

Anti-gender Campaigns and Abortion: Two Examples

Conscientious Objection and the Use of Social Media

Conscientious objection has definitely been problematic. According to the original bill, only physicians and not diagnosticians or medical teams, were allowed to object to performing abortions on philosophical, moral, or religious grounds, providing administrators with prior written notice. This was changed during the discussion of the bill to include all health staff, which is an unnecessary way to complicate the possibility of gaining access to an abortion. Once the law was approved, a group of conservative senators and deputies filed two constitutional challenges before the law could be enacted, and the Constitutional Tribunal extended the right to conscientious objection to entire institutions. The vice-chancellor of the Universidad Católica, during the discussion of the bill and after its approval, pointed out in different opportunities that all the health institutions part of the institutional network will not perform abortions. As a consequence, the University brought lawsuits in order to ensure their right to object the implementation of the law. Currently, there are regions in Chile where it is extremely difficult to find health care professionals who can perform abortions in the public health care system. In this sense, women from certain areas who cannot afford private care will experience much more difficulties accessing this right. Additionally, the Piñera government has not implemented training for health care professionals which has been done by feminists, health organisations or health care professionals with their own resources.

Doctors who perform abortions have also been attacked by conservatives. A picture of the first doctor who did the procedure under the new legislation, Gonzalo Rubio, was photoshopped to show his hands covered with blood and published in different media. This was a reaction to an article published in the newspaper El Mercurio, which told the story of the first abortion performed under the Abortion Act and the way in which healthcare providers were trained to do so. In the article, Rubio told the story: a 12-year-old girl who had an abortion after being raped. He worked in the Hospital San José, a public hospital located in Santiago. The girl lived in the south of Chile, Chiloé, but, as the Act was recently approved and the protocols were not yet published, it was difficult to find someone local to the area who was willing to perform the procedure. The movement against the liberalisation of abortion is very much alive.

The Appropriation of Feminist Strategies

Conservative campaigns against abortion have appropriated and resignified the concept of gender as a mere ideology. In general, national campaigns of ‘pro-life groups’ have followed a similar orientation to previous and current campaigns elsewhere in the world. In the foreground and at the centre we find the ‘humanisation of the foetus’, which leaves the woman in the background or frankly completely out of the picture. The message it conveys seems clear enough: the destruction of the foetus in the abortion is analogous to an assassination (Braidotti, 1994; Petchestky, 1987; Rothman, 1989). However, one of the key strategic movements has been the representation of women as victims, making their own position one ‘in defence of women’, mimicking feminist strategies. The visualisation of concrete experiences and sufferings of women, sometimes drawing explicitly on humanitarian iconography and slogans, takes distance from the hitherto almost exclusive representation of the foetus. In this way, they have adopted new strategies, for example with the use of artistic performances or discourses that show concern towards ‘women suffering’, blaming feminists for leaving women alone.

Conservatives have argued that they are the ones defending the right to life, they are the ones resisting neoliberalism, and they are the defenders of women’s rights (the ‘genuine feminists’). Women, by extension, are portrayed as weak, vulnerable, and defenceless beings, and this also shapes what is demanded from the State. As women are seen as abandoned individuals, it is crucial for the State to defend them; ‘protecting’ women, entails the provision of support which will prevent them from having an abortion. The conservative Chilean philosopher Daniel Mansuy, for instance, published a controversial piece entitled ‘The triumph of individualism’, in which he argues that the movement for liberalisation of abortion (especially in its socialist and Christian-Democrat versions) subscribes to an individualist principle that they themselves claim to abhor. In a similar tone, the ex-Christian-Democrat senator Soledad Alvear claimed that ‘el aborto es lo más machista que hay’ (‘there is nothing more machista than abortion’). They also defend women’s ‘natural desire’ to become mothers, a right that is threatened by various forms of social vulnerability associated with neoliberalism. This view maintains that a woman who has support would not even think about having an abortion, because of her natural instincts. This attack is problematic because conservatives portray themselves as the defenders of women being materially and socially able to have children, an antagonistic stance aimed at feminism which, according to them, leaves women alone. 

Some final thoughts

As we have seen, there are power relations and alliances between economic elites and religious conservative organisations that has gained force as the interests of the current right-wing government aligns with those of conservative groups. The final impact occurs in the actual body of women, which is being governed through the anti-gender campaigns I have already described. Through attention to the complexity and variety of the opposition to abortion, it is possible to see not only how those who challenge feminist perspectives articulate their positions, but also how that opposition influences feminism in turn.

Regarding the implementation of the Act, conservatives have tried, sometimes successfully, to restrict the law. Feminists have begun to monitor its actual compliance, because there are many barriers, such as conscientious objection, that could hinder women’s access to abortions or access to good-quality care services. Additionally, the characterisation of women as ‘in need of protection’, typical of humanitarian governmental practices, is highly problematic because it can involve new modes of biopolitical control. The challenge for feminism and Chilean feminists in particular, is to understand abortion as an issue of social justice in a way that addresses the politics and complexity of affects involved in the experience, without patronising, and without removing women’s agency by reducing them to their sorrow. The re-articulation of the conservatives’ stance, thus, needs constant attention and reflection that enables feminism to find new and creative ways of resisting the ‘attacks’.

 

Lieta Vivaldi (PhD) obtained her PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She also has an MSc in Sociology from LSE and her first degree in Law from the University of Chile. She has participated in different research projects about abortion, reproductive rights and feminisms. Her main interests include reproductive rights, reproductive technologies, feminist and gender theory, intersectionality, religion, and health policies. Lieta is also a feminist activist and member of both the Association of Feminist Lawyers (ABOFEM) and the International Institute for Philosophy and Social Sciences (IIPSS). She is currently working at the Mesa Acción por el Aborto en Chile (MAACH).

 

[1] This blog post is a shorter and slightly updated version of a section of a Chapter of my PhD thesis ‘Abortion in Chile: Biopolitics and Feminist Resistance’. A Spanish translation of this piece is available on the next page.

[2] These groups have strongly resisted any legislative act that they perceive as posing a threat to the gender status quo, historically excluding those legal initiatives from the agenda. To illustrate this, a resolution abolishing the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children was approved in 1998; the same for sodomy in 1999, and divorce in 2004.

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