Chile poised to ease strict laws on abortion
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Chile was poised to lift its total ban on abortion, after the Chamber of Deputies on Wednesday weighed a measure to decriminalize the procedure in certain cases, the last step before it would go to President Michelle Bachelet for her signature.
Until now, the South American country has been part of a small group of socially conservative nations that barred abortion under all circumstances -- including the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Gabon, Haiti, Malta, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Senegal.
But if passed, the legislation would allow abortion in cases of rape, if the mother's life is at risk or if the fetus presents a deadly birth defect.
The lower chamber's vote, expected on Thursday, will come after the senate passed the measure in the early hours of Wednesday.
Approval in the Chamber of Deputies would send the law to Bachelet -- a pediatrician who returned to office in March 2014 after serving as Chile's first woman president from 2006 to 2010.
After hours of tense debate and more than two years in the making, senators approved the proposal, capping a marathon session of nearly 17 hours.
"It's a historic morning," said Bachelet, who during her previous term pushed for the "morning after pill" and now again challenged conservative groups with the abortion law.
"Beyond the fact that everyone can have a personal opinion, this project shows that we are a country where women, faced with such situations, can make the best decision possible."
'Turn to Christ'
During the debate in Chile's senate, police were called in to remove religious activists, most of them youths, from the chamber because they kept interrupting debate with anti-abortion chants and protest signs.
"Human beings have dignity just by existing," one sign read.
Another woman held up a poster reading "Turn to Christ" and cried out "Return to the Lord!" as she was led out.
Chilean conservatives have rallied against the abortion bill ever since Bachelet introduced it in January 2015.
Nevertheless, polls show that 70 percent of Chileans support legalized abortion under the three conditions introduced in the senate.
Chile had permitted abortion for more than 50 years -- only if the mother's life was in danger or if the fetus was not viable -- until it was strictly outlawed in 1989 during the final days of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
Under current law, abortion is punishable by up to five years in prison.
However, about 30,000 provoked or spontaneous abortions are recorded each year in the country, though it is estimated that clandestine abortions could number around 160,000, according to a pro-abortion group.
Top priority for Bachelet
"It's a great contribution to the history of Chile," Claudia Dides, spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation reproductive rights group, said after the vote.
"I think our girls, our teenagers and women will wake up happy today, feeling confident that they'll be able to decide every day of their lives."
Supporters of the measure who had gathered outside Congress clapped and cheered when news broke of the senate's approval.
The congressional action comes ahead of November presidential elections in which Bachelet will not be a candidate.
The president said that she will make the measure's approval and full implementation a priority before she leaves office in March 2018.
"It's an act of cruelty to not allow women to decide," Senator Guido Girardi said during the debate.
Conservative Senator Ena Von Baer warned that she would send the measure to the country's Constitutional Tribunal for review, claiming that it denies protection to unborn children.
Lawmakers from Bachelet's Socialist party have tried in the past to introduce abortion bills, but they have always been voted down by the legislature.
Bachelet, who was a senior United Nations official working on female empowerment issues after her first term in office, has seen her support wane due to administration scandals.
Opinion polls show that in November, voters will likely re-elect conservative former president Sebastian Pinera.
Conservative groups have historically had great influence in Chile, though they have lost ground in recent years. Chileans had to wait until 2004 to be able to divorce, and until just two years ago for same-sex civil unions.