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Chilean Lawmakers Ease Abortion Restrictions — But Will The Court Agree?

During a march last month in favor of President Michelle Bachelet's bill, a demonstrator displays a handkerchief with an embroidered image of a uterus and the word "free" in Spanish.
Esteban Felix

For decades, Chile has boasted one of the world's strictest abortion bans. Passed in the final years of dictator Augusto Pinochet's reign, the rule has for nearly three decades outlawed the procedure without exception, placing Chile among just a few countries worldwide to do so.

Lawmakers voted to relax that law Wednesday, allowing abortions in three cases: when the pregnancy resulted from rape, when the mother's life is in danger and when the fetus is unviable. President Michelle Bachelet, who has long fought to roll back the country's abortion ban, says she will sign the measure into law.

"Today women recover a basic right that we never should have lost: to decide when we go through moments of pain," Bachelet tweeted Wednesday.

Still, the fight is not over.

That's because it still requires approval from Chile's Constitutional Court, which resolves disputes on whether a law complies with the country's constitution. The conservative opposition already requested a ruling from the tribunal, alleging in a 67-page document that the bill violates the constitutional mandate to "protect the life that is about to be born," according to Telesur TV.

The legislation — in its several different iterations — has been the subject of years of bitter debate, and it was only a last-minute change to the bill that enabled it to cobble together enough votes to pass the Senate.

Now, the bill's fate in could depend on how long the court takes to render its decision.

The head of the tribunal, a center-left Bachelet appointee considered supportive of the bill, is expected to be the swing vote in the ruling — but he will be stepping down when his mandate ends August 29. At that point, he will be replaced by conservative judge Ivan Arostica, who is thought to be firmly anti-abortion.

For now, though, advocates have expressed hope for the measure, which Bloomberg reports more than 70 percent of Chileans support.

"This is historic, a great triumph that will allow Chilean women to feel safe," said Claudia Dides, director of advocacy group , told the outlet. "We think that the Constitutional Court will solve this quickly because no one wants to see it becoming tangled in the political agenda for the next presidential election."

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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