Originally published in El Mercurio, March 18, 2012
Translated by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman
I have followed with much attention the debate over abortion, following the Senate Committee on Health’s approval of three bills tending to depenalize it under certain circumstances.
Before expressing my position with regard to the substance, I think it is useful and necessary to make two considerations of form. The first is that this is a legitimate and necessary debate in a democratic and pluralistic society like ours. The second is that at we must not engage in this debate assuming bad faith or discrediting one’s opponent, but rather arguing, with respect and seriousness, based on principles, convictions, and the search for the common good.
Regarding the substance: as the whole country knows, I am against the legalization of abortion for multiple reasons and in many ways. I have peace in that this is a position that I have maintained in public and in private, for my whole life, including the period in which I was a senator, two times a candidate for the presidency, and it was thusly stated in my presidential position statements, and today I ratify it as President of the Republic.
This firm and clear position is supported by various kinds of arguments. First, one of juridical character. Our Constitution secures the right to life for all people, and both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Tribunal have invariably ruled that, in accordance with our legal system, the unborn child is also a person, whose life must be protected. And if that weren’t enough, the Constitution itself requires the legislator to adopt the necessary measures to “protect the life of the unborn.”
The second reason is a practical one: when in doubt it is always better to opt for life. Because even if we didn’t have certainty regarding the juridical treatment that must be given to a human life in gestation, the correct and wise thing to do is to assume a humble position and opt for that which is most favorable to the protection and development of that life. When we are addressing issues that involve human life or dignity, therefore, it is better to be prudent than proceed in haste.
The third reason is that this is not a decision that belongs only to the mother or the parents of the unborn child. A new, unique, unrepeatable person, distinct from its parents is also involved, whose life must be defended with greater force, precisely because of its state of complete innocence and defenselessness.
The fourth reason is of a religious kind. As a Christian I believe that life is a gift from God. Only he has the right to give life and the right to take it away. For that reason, I support protecting life and human dignity from conception to natural death. And for the same reason, I am also against euthanasia and the death penalty.
Without minimizing it, I am conscious that this argument of a religious nature, in and of itself, is not sufficient to justify an absolute governmental prohibition of abortion in our country. Among other reasons, because it makes no sense to have a public debate from purely religious convictions, which are not susceptible to debate, nor can nor should be subject to the rule of majorities, which are proper to a democratic system.
In large part the recent debate has been centered on what is, without a doubt, the most dramatic case with which a pregnant mother can be confronted: to have to decide if she is going to receive a medical treatment or not, which permits her to save her life, but at the price of placing that of the son or daughter in her womb at risk. Fortunately, advances in science and medicine have made it possible to render such an inescapable collision between both lives highly improbable. But even so, we are not able to dismiss the possibility of such situations occuring. For these exceptional and extreme cases, there is no doubt that both our legal standards and medical protocol authorize surgical or therapeutic interventions, to save the mother if she so decides, even when, as an undesired and unsought effect, such an intervention could put the life of her child at risk. In sum, if the mother opts for treatment that will save her life but not that of her child, it would not be an abortion, in the same way that if she decided to choose life for her child and risk or sacrifice her own, a decision that must be respected, she would not be committing suicide. This is without a doubt an agonizing decision, which the society can and must accompany and give aid to the affected family, but in no case should it judge the woman, much less condemn her.
On the other hand, the arguments in favor of eugenic abortion, which is what is proposed for situations of inviability or deformities of the fetus, and that which has been called “ethical-social abortion,” which would permit the termination of a pregnancy that has been the consequence of a rape, are incorrect given that they presume to arrogate to ourselves the right to classify human beings as superior—those who deserve to live—and inferior—those who do not deserve to live—and furthermore, to condemn to death people who are absolutely defenseless and innocent of the circumstances of their conception.
But it is not sufficient to simply oppose abortion, although it might be for very good reasons. We do not know with certainty how many abortions are carried out every year in Chile, among other reasons, because it is illegal conduct, for which reason the vast majority of those who do them, do them in a clandestine and secret way to avoid penal sanctions. But we do know that, lamentably, this is not an isolated practice in our country, but that the number would reach, in the best of cases, tens of thousands every year. That is, we are faced with a dramatic situation, not only for those thousands of children who are never born, but also for the mother, her family, and the whole society.
In consequence, we must try to decipher their fundamental causes, better understand their consequences, and implement better policies to prevent abortions and undesired pregnancies. This has been a central commitment of our government, through multiple public policies, among which I would like to highlight: first the increase of maternity leave from three to six months and the widening of its coverage, from one in three, to all working women of childbearing age, thus benefiting, potentially, 2.5 million Chilean women. In this way we seek to ensure that maternity is never an obstacle to entering a job, nor work an obstacle for being a mother.
Second, the program of vulnerable maternity, which Sernam (Servicio Nacional de la Mujer—the “National Women’s Service”) is developing, and which has already benefited more than 55,000 women. This, program, which includes psychologists, lawyers, sociologists, and social workers, assists women in person and on line with problems related to pregnancy or maternity, such as access to pre and postnatal care, pre and postpartum depression, undesired pregnancies, sadness over the loss of a child, problems with purchases of food, tuition, etc.
And third, the Sernam program for adolescent women, which attends thousands of women in the area of educational and laboral reinsertion, care of children, prevention of new undesired pregnancies, etc.
These programs are especially useful and necessary because I am sure that no mother who has recourse to abortion does it without a profound internal angst and most of the time is driven by a feeling of anguish and abandonment. Often behind this act is hidden desperation, vulnerability, and the lack of understanding of society, and often her family also, which makes her feel incapable or obstructed from bringing her pregnancy to a happy conclusion.
Some argue that Chile will be a less modern and civilized country if it doesn’t imitate what other supposedly better developed nations have done, where abortion is not only legal but widely accepted. But they are wrong. They forget that Chile has a more than one hundred year tradition of protecting fundamental rights, that we were one of the first countries in the world to establish liberty for the children of slaves and prohibit slavery. And precisely the way that a society treats its weakest members—senior citizens, the sick, the most poor, those who suffer some sort of handicap, and unborn children—says much about the level of its civilization than its material wealth, the height of its buildings, the quality of its infrastructure, or its military might.