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SANTIAGO, Chile, March 19, 2015 ( — A bill introduced Tuesday in the Chilean legislature may soon overturn the country’s 25-year-old abortion ban, allowing abortions in cases of rape, poor prenatal diagnosis, or risk to the mother’s life.

In response, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, archbishop of Santiago, is urging the Catholic country to “fight” for the lives of unborn children.

Since 1989, abortion has been a crime punishable by up to five years in prison in Chile.   But under the proposed law, abortion would be allowed until 12 weeks of pregnancy for girls and women over the age of 14 who conceive through rape or face “vital risk” by continuing a pregnancy.  Abortion would also be permitted if a baby receives a prenatal diagnosis of a condition doctors consider “incompatible with life.”

For girls 14 and younger, the law would be even less restrictive – abortions would be available until the 18th week of pregnancy, on the grounds that it may take them longer to figure out that they are pregnant.  In the case of rape, minor girls would be able to get abortions without parental consent.

While the bill allows for doctors to opt out of performing abortions for reasons of conscience, the provision comes with a limitation – in the event that a woman wants an “emergency” abortion and there is no one else available, the doctor must perform the procedure whether it conflicts with his or her values or not.

Socialist President Michelle Bachelet is the leading supporter of the proposed law, which she pledged to champion during her 2013 campaign and has been pushing ever since.

“Facts have shown that the absolute criminalization of abortion has not stopped the practice,” Bachelet said at a press conference announcing the bill.  “This is a difficult situation and we must face it as a mature country.” 

Bachelet’s government says exceptions to the abortion ban are necessary to prevent dangerous illegal abortions, which they claim happen between 15,000 and 160,000 times a year, causing up to 12 percent of maternal deaths.  However, a major study recently showed that not only are these numbers highly inflated, Chile has one of the lowest abortion-related death rates in the world.

Because Bachelet’s Socialist Party controls the majority coalition of the Chilean Congress, pro-abortion activists say they are confident the bill will pass – albeit not without a lengthy fight from pro-life conservatives and the Roman Catholic Church.

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“I'm positive the bill will get passed. It's long overdue,” Monica Arango, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the pro-abortion Center for Reproductive Rights told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Bachelet started the initiative so this has presidential backing and support from most of the political parties.  I would be surprised, though, if the bill gets through quickly. There's still a way to go.”

Chile is 77 percent Catholic, with a strong pro-life movement.  The last twelve attempts to roll back the country’s ban on abortion have failed, and roughly 15,000 people attended a June rally and prayer vigil to oppose abortion.  Many of the nation’s Catholic universities and hospitals have pledged that they will never allow the procedure to be performed at their facilities.

But the government appears ready to play hardball.  Last month, socialist Congressman Marcelo Schilling threatened Catholic institutions with government takeover if they resist the law after its passage.  And pro-abortion forces say the current proposal is only a first step toward complete decriminalization of abortion.

“My vision for a democracy means that abortion under any circumstance is a woman’s decision,” Gloria Maira of Chilean activist group “Feminist Articulation for the Right to Choose” told The Atlantic.  

Likewise, Ana Piquer of Amnesty International told Germany’s Deutsche Welle that  the current bill is “a step in the right direction,” but she wants to see the government put its money where its mouth is by mandating private insurance coverage and possibly public funding for abortion.  “[T]he law also has to assure that women, regardless of their economic situation, can access abortion services,” Piquer said.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, archbishop of Santiago and president of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference, has called on the country’s faithful to “fight and get organized” to stop the bill.  “I know that the laypeople of Chile are organizing to proclaim what our faith says about life and our conviction to defend it,” the archbishop told EWTN. “I am very happy that the laypeople are assuming their responsibilities and are ready to take on this fight.”