Eleven-Year-Old Girl’s Ordeal Spurs Abortion Debate in Chile

BySANTIAGO WILLS <a href="https://twitter.com/swillsp" target="external">@swillsp</a>)
July 13, 2013, 4:37 PM

July 13, 2013&#151; -- "Belén," an 11-year-old girl from a rural town in southern Chile, says that she was sexually abused by her 31-year-old stepfather since she was seven. She is now 14 weeks pregnant.

Belén, whose face was concealed to protect her identity, told a local television station about her ordeal, and about her decision to keep the baby.

"It will be like having a doll in my arms," she said, "but well, I am going to love it very much regardless of what it is, and regardless of whether it comes from that man who hurt me."

Belén's case was first brought to the attention of local authorities by her grandmother. The girl initially blamed a fellow student for her pregnancy, but when the student's parents confronted her grandmother, Belén admitted that the man responsible was her stepfather. (Her mother defends her husband, and claims that the relationship was consensual.) Belén was then interviewed twice on local television, and her testimony soon garnered national attention from NGOs, medical groups and even the president of Chile.

It's also divided the religious and conservative country on the issue of abortion. Unlike the U.S. and most Latin American countries, abortions in Chile are banned in all cases, regardless of whether the mother was raped, or whether her life or the baby's is at risk. (The only other countries in the Americas with similar legislation in place are Nicaragua, Salvador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic.) The procedure used to be legal for cases involving medical dangers from 1931 until 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet banned them altogether.

But for Chilean liberals and NGOs, Belén's case has become a rallying cry for passing a new law. Many politicians have already posted videos on YouTube supporting a new measure, and María Antonieta Saa, a congresswoman, has already introduced new legislation decriminalizing abortion in cases that involve rape and fatal risks for the mother or the child. Michelle Bachelet, the opposition's presidential candidate for this year's upcoming elections, has said that she supports this sort of policy.

Nevertheless, there is staunch opposition from religious organizations and conservative politicians, many of which have tried to justify Belén's situation.

"What I understand, medically, is that at the moment that a woman goes through her first period, it's because her organism is already prepared to be a mother, to give birth," Issa Kort, a conservative representative, said in a radio debate. He added, referring to Belén, "Those are not the ideal conditions. If we think about the Middle Age or the beginning of the Renaissance, women were mothers at 14, 15, 16, and life expectancy was much lower."

Since 1990, Chilean liberals have unsuccessfully tried to enact legislation decriminalizing abortion for some specific cases. Last year, the Chilean congress considered a bill that would allow procedures to terminate pregnancies when the mother was raped or when her or the child's life was at risk. The bill managed to make its way out of the health committee -- something that had not happened in over two decades -- but it ultimately failed.

Maria Antonieta Saa's legislation might have a better chance, according to activists like Natalia Flores, Executive Secretary of the Observatorio de Género y Equidad, a Chilean NGO that promotes equality and women's rights. Moreover, given that most polls point towards Bachelet's imminent triumph in the coming election, activists are once again hopeful of a new beginning when it comes to this issue.

"On the one hand, I hope that we don't have any more cases like that of Karen Espíndola or little Belén for Congress to take up the debate once again," Natalia Flores wrote in an op-ed. "And, on the other hand, I hope we don't force Belén to carry on with a pregnancy that came as a result of a rape."

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