BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An 11-year-old Chilean girl who has become pregnant as a result of rape has sparked a national debate over the country’s total ban on abortion and put a spotlight on the taboo issue of incest in the conservative South American nation.
The girl, known as Belen, was raped by her 32-year-old stepfather, who has been arrested and has confessed to sexually abusing the child over a two-year period, according to local press reports.
Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera was criticised for praising the girl’s decision to keep the baby and not give it up for adoption - in a country where abortion is completely banned, even in cases of rape or if the life of the mother or foetus is in danger.
“She's 14 weeks pregnant, and yesterday she surprised us all with words showing depth and maturity, when she said that, despite the pain caused by the man who raped her, she wanted to have and take care of her baby,” Pinera said on Tuesday. "I've asked the health minister to personally look after the (girl's) health.”
The girl’s plight was brought to the attention of police by her maternal grandmother.
"It will be like having a doll in my arms," said Belen, whose face was not shown during an interview with local TV station, Canal 13. "I'm going to love the baby very much, even though it comes from that man who hurt me."
CHURCH AND CONSERVATIVES
Like much of Latin America, Chile is predominantly Catholic, and the Catholic Church and conservative lawmakers argue that abortion infringes on the right of an unborn child, which should be protected by law at all costs.
The right-wing government of Pinera has opposed renewed calls to ease the country’s outright ban on abortion. Last year, the Chilean senate rejected three bills that would have allowed abortion under certain circumstances.
Other conservative lawmakers in Chile have also weighed in on the abortion debate in response to Belen’s case.
“From the moment a woman has her first period, her first menstruation, it’s because her body is ready to become a mother, to procreate,” said congressman Issa Kort on local TV programme Hora 20 earlier this week.
His comments set off a social media storm, leading the politician to issue an apology on his Twitter account, while at the same time saying, “I reaffirm my position towards pro-life from the moment of conception.”
However, the case of Belen has prompted several of Chile’s more liberal lawmakers to urge the government to push for laws to decriminalise abortion under certain circumstances.
“In Chile there are many girls like Belen who have been raped by their fathers, stepfathers and other relatives. Having a law that allows therapeutic abortions would allow so many girls to save their lives and prevent them from having to go ahead with their pregnancy in a state of shock,” congresswoman Adriana Munoz was quoted as saying in the local press on Tuesday.
“Unfortunately in Chile today we have laws which impede doctors, science and technology from being made available to women in order to save their lives.”
Chile’s College of Midwives has also called on the government to review the country’s abortion ban and step up efforts to reduce child sex abuse.
“The case (of Belen) is an extreme case, but there are hundreds of women and adolescents in our country who are sexually abused by people close to them and who have to go through unwanted pregnancies, of which many are a consequence of incest,” Anita Roman, who heads the College of Midwives, told the local press.
Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, the front-runner in the country’s upcoming presidential elections in November, has said she plans to decriminalise abortion for rape victims if elected.
"She's a girl (Belen) who needs to be protected, and therefore I think a therapeutic abortion, in this case because of rape, would be in order," Bachelet told local ADN radio earlier this week.
However, during her time as president and head of the UN Women agency, local rights groups say Bachelet did little to ease the country’s abortion ban and improve reproductive rights.
Chile is one of seven countries in Latin America where abortion is completely banned, with no explicit exception written in law made to save the life of a woman.