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Chile's Abortion Reform in Trouble


By Gram Slattery

VALPARAISO, Chile (Reuters) - President Michelle Bachelet's push to relax strict abortion laws in socially conservative Chile has created a rift inside her ruling coalition and key elements of the reform are likely to be scratched.

Leading lawmakers in the Christian Democrat party, the coalition's senior partner, told Reuters that fewer than a third of its 21 legislators in the lower chamber of Congress fully support the proposed reform.

That would mean Bachelet and her Socialist Party are short of the votes needed to pass the current bill.

Chile is one of only six countries with an outright ban on abortion. It had been legal in some cases but was abolished by General Augusto Pinochet late in his 1973-1990 dictatorship.

Bachelet promised reform when she was elected president for a second time in 2013 but her approval ratings have slumped following high-profile scandals involving allies and ongoing student protests, weakening her position in Congress.

Divorce was legalized in Chile in 2004, same-sex unions were signed into law last year, and a 2014 poll found that 70 percent of Chileans supported abortions in extraordinary circumstances.

Bachelet's proposals would allow an abortion if a mother's life is in danger, if a fetus is unviable or when a pregnancy is a result of rape.       

But her bill has prompted bitter feuding inside her government, putting major parts of the reform in jeopardy.

"A huge majority of the party has doubts about at least one of the three causes for abortion," said Victor Torres, one of two Christian Democrats on the health commission of Chile's lower chamber and a supporter of the reform.

"Right now we only have six deputies who currently support the full bill," Torres said, noting that a "great majority” of his party's lawmakers oppose abortion in cases of rape.

Lawmakers say Christian Democrats will try to eliminate the option of abortions in cases of rape and ensure that fathers have a say in the termination of an unviable fetus.

"The rape clause will likely be rejected," said Matias Walker, vice president of the Christian Democrats. "As for fetal viability, we believe this will pass, but only where the father, when possible, has a say."

Juan Luis Castro, a Socialist Party lawmaker who is president of the lower house's health committee and supports the reform, says he believes the rape clause will pass after debate. He added that the bill would be modified but that an amendment on paternal consent would be "difficult to accept."

Supporters of Bachelet's plan oppose the idea of a woman needing permission to terminate a pregnancy.

"Fathers, brothers, doctors, how can they tell you what to do with your body if they haven't experienced what they're talking about," said Andrea Quiroga, an accountant who said she was forced to wait until a terminally ill fetus died in her womb before doctors induced delivery.

Bachelet's approval rating sank to 27 percent in June and she risks losing political capital over the abortion bill. It could force her to dilute other reforms, including a plan to strengthen workers' protections with new labor laws and an overhaul of the privatized education system.

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