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Women forced to be ‘human coffins’

Santiago, Chile – 30/05/2012 – as published by The Guardian.  

In a bungalow in suburban Santiago a heavily pregnant woman is lying on a bed of grass. Dressed in her nightgown her face is tranquil; a few beads of sweat gathering at her temples the only sign of a concealed distress. On closer inspection the greenery is arranged in ritualistic fashion, sticks of celery fanning out around the body of the woman like a halo, and as the camera pans down the expectant mother’s body a splash of red flashes across the screen.

This is the closing sequence of new film, “Apio Verde”, shown for the first time in Chile this April. Literally translated as “Green Celery” – a reference to the practice of using a stick of celery to perform an abortion – the film is based on the 2010 case of Claudia Pizarro, a 28-year-old woman denied both an abortion and treatment for cancer despite being pregnant with an anencephalic foetus.

Chile is one of only five countries worldwide to prohibit abortion in all instances. This includes cases of rape, foetal malformation, therapeutic abortion, when a pregnancy puts the woman’s life at risk, and even ectopic pregnancy. ‘This is not a fiction, it’s a psychological reality,” director Franscec Morales says, keen to emphasis the reality behind the film’s shocking portrayal.

“Many women feel to be true ‘human coffins,'” Karen Espíndola explains. “We are women who had to think, not of preparing the bedroom of our future child but his funeral,” she says blinking back tears.

Like Claudia Pizarro, whose daughter only lived an hour, Karen discovered in 2008 that she would give birth to a child with a terminal illness. Desperate for an abortion to avoid the despair of watching her child die, her pleas were ignored. Karen gave birth to a son Osvaldito in early 2009. He died two years later. She has campaigned for a change in the law ever since.

In the last 20 years more than 15 abortion-related bills have been submitted to Congress for discussion. Half of these have called to increase existing penalties. In April this year three bills to decriminalize abortion, including therapeutic abortion, were rejected, despite a poll conducted by a Chilean university showing that 63 percent of Chileans support abortion to save the mother’s life.

“In Chile we are forcing our women to be martyrs, which is something unthinkable in a democracy,” Karen says outraged. “This whole process is a real psychological torture, one that the State encourages against its own citizenship.”

In the most recent debate on the topic, Jaime Mañalich, Chile’s health minister, cited increased costs for public sector healthcare as a key-determining factor in his reason to vote against the legislation. According to the Pan American Health Organization, abortion, despite being illegal, was the third leading cause of maternal mortality in Chile between 2000 and 2002, accounting for 12% of all maternal deaths.

Social conservatism among both politicians and the population is a huge obstacle to legalizing what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called “excessively restrictive abortion laws”. Michele Bachelet, the country’s first female president, and now head of UN Women, made significant steps towards legalizing the morning-after pill in 2008 but never even touched the issue of abortion.

According to Claudia Lagos Lira, author of “Abortion in Chile”, even left-wing politicians avoid the issue of abortion, fearful of upsetting the Catholic Church. Chile is one of the most Christian countries in the world: 88 percent of the population is Catholic or Evangelical. “Religion has a very powerful influence over the country,” Lira says. “Many pharmacies refuse to stock the morning-after pill even though it is now legal and Chile’s most recent Aids campaign failed to even mention the word ‘condom’.”

With enough money, an abortion is a possibility for any Chilean woman. Many wealthy women travel abroad for the procedure. Clandestine abortions cost anywhere between £50 for a packet of misopostrol pills (tablets that can be inserted into the vagina to induce an abortion), and £1,200 for an appointment in a private clinic.

But these options are not open to all women. Chile, despite being widely applauded as the most developed country in Latin America, was named the most socially unjust state in the OECD’s 38-country membership in 2011. Many women are forced to resort to cheap and unsafe means of abortion such as self-inflicted torture, self-poisoning and inserting sharp objects, like knitting needles, into the vagina.

“The problem with clandestine abortions in Chile is a matter of equality,” says Dr. Beatriz Sagaldo, a GP working for the Department of Public Health at the University of Valparaíso. “Women with resources practice abortions safely and in good health, while lower class women practice unhealthy abortions and risk their own lives. This is the reality in our country.”

In recent years the advent of misopostrol, easily bought on the internet and selfadministered, has undoubtedly improved the safety of abortion in the country. According to figures from the Chilean Institute of Reproductive Medicine, the number of women entering hospitals between 1990-2000 as a result of complications from attempted abortions decreased from 36 to 29 per 100,000 women. The world average is 14 per 100,000.

However, the similarity between the effects of medical abortions and natural miscarriage has resulted in increased hostility from hospital staff towards all women treated for such complications. It is also the doctors in Chile who most often turn women over to the police: if found guilty abortion carries a five-year prison sentence.

“Women, confronted with the knowledge that their child will be born with abnormalities, live in fear instead of being supported,” one woman said. “It’s an atmosphere of complete claustrophobia with nowhere to turn. Doctors don’t help, the law is against you, and many don’t have the money to pay for a solution.” Paradoxically, improvements to the safety of abortion in Chile is good news for women’s immediate health concerns but does nothing to help highlight the severity and unpopularity of the law in the long run. In fact it removes the urgency required to lead an international campaign to end the ban, as well as relegating the need for social and psychological provision for women who have had abortions or, like Karen, have been victims of the current legislation.

For Claudia, Karen and many others like them, the damage is done. “The experience cannot be deleted” Karen says. Any change in the law, unlikely to happen soon, will come too late for her but she remains determined: “Although politicians continue this cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of Chilean women, every time we fight we gain consciousness and social legitimacy.”

This article was shortlisted for The Guardian International Development Competition. The Guardian then sent me to Ecuador to write about domestic workers. That article will be published in November in a special Development supplement. The winner of the whole competition will be announced in London on November 22nd.