A Chilean court made a landmark ruling today when it voted to roll back the country’s total ban on abortions, permitting the procedure in a limited number of cases for the first time in 30 years.
The new law—the product of a years-long effort by President Michelle Bachelet—will now allow doctors to perform abortions in a total of three crucial circumstances: When a pregnancy results from rape, when a pregnancy endangers the mother’s life and when the fetus is unviable. It passed by a margin of 6-4, following intense debate in the country’s Constitutional Court, with right-wing legislators claiming the bill would violate the constitutional rights “of the unborn.”
The former head of U.N. Women, Bachelet has made abortion rights a centerpiece of her agenda, despite aggressive opposition from certain factions of the devoutly Catholic country.
“What has prevailed is tolerance, and that every woman may make decisions based on her values, religion, principles or real options,” Bachelet said during a news conference.
“Today I am proud to say we have fulfilled a fundamental commitment of our government with the women in our country,” she added. “It has been a long battle, fought with the weapons of democracy and dialogue, overcoming barriers and prejudice that in the past impeded hundreds of women from alleviating their suffering.”
Chile allowed abortions in certain cases under its 1931 health code, but outlawed them entirely in 1989 under the dictator Augusto Pinochet. But as is often the case, the ban didn’t prevent abortions from taking place: The BBC points out that up to 70,000 illegal abortions were performed annually in Chile, often via a pill intended to treat ulcers or by medication acquired from the black market.
The New York Times reports a jubilant air outside the court building as the vote was made public. Among those interviewed was Karen Espíndola, who after being denied an abortion in 2008 gave birth to a son with an incurable chronic illness, dying when he was just two years old.
“It is fantastic that the court respected democracy,” she told the paper. “It is a step forward for women facing dramatic situations who can now make their own decision whether to continue or not with their pregnancy, instead of being forced against their will.”
Abortion remains completely illegal in El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Malta and The Vatican.