Chile: Constitutional Tribunal upholds constitutionality of new abortion law

Many thanks to Carlos Herrera Vacaflor, LL.M., for providing the following overview of this historic decision in Chile.

Tribunal Constitucional Chile, STC Rol N° 3729(3751)-17 CPT,  Requerimientos de inconstitucionalidad presentados por un grupo de Senadores y Diputados, respecto de normas del proyecto de ley que regula la despenalización de la interrupción voluntaria del embarazo en tres causales, correspondiente al boletín N° 9895-11.  Decision in Spanish: 295 pagesAccompanying documentsOther Submissions
New: English Decision: 149 pages includes a Table of Contents for both English and Spanish editions.

On August 21, 2017, the Constitutional Tribunal of Chile, in a 6 to 4 ruling, upheld the constitutionality of a Bill (now enacted into law) that decriminalizes abortion in three cases: rape, fatal fetal impairment and when a woman’s life is in danger.

The Tribunal based its ruling on the following guiding principles, among others. On the basis of international human rights treaties ratified by Chile and national legal developments on maternity, the Tribunal recognized that pregnancy affects the physical and psychological integrity of a woman, since a fetus occupying a woman’s body causes physical and physiological transformations.  Furthermore, the Tribunal stated that criminal law on abortion imposes severe restrictions on rights, and leads to social and legal condemnation of individuals. The Tribunal, given such punitive power, recognized that criminal law should only be considered as an instrument of last resort, in order to limit the restrictive effect the law has on rights.

The Tribunal interpreted “threat to the life of the woman” as a risk to her life (riesgo vital). Only the physician who provides the abortion is needed to diagnose the risk to the woman’s life; no further examinations are required, lest the provision of care be delayed. Abortion is also decriminalized when the fetus carries a fatal congenital or genetic impairment impeding its survival outside the womb. The Tribunal maintained that since the Bill requires that two specialist physicians diagnose the disease of the fetus, these professionals must avoid decisional paralysis that could put a woman in greater danger. In cases of rape, the Tribunal considered constitutional the limits on access to abortion: for girls under the age of 14, abortion must be performed before 14 weeks of gestation; if the victim is older than 14, before 12 weeks of gestation.

The Tribunal also recognized, by an 8 to 2 vote, the constitutionality of institutional conscientious objection. The Tribunal found institutional conscientious objection also constitutional. Given the lack of uniformity on whether artificial legal “persons” (such as hospitals or clinics) have a right to conscience and religion in the Inter-American System of Human Rights, the Tribunal decided to elaborate its own position. The Tribunal considered it arbitrary to limit the scope of conscientious objection only to professionals intervening in abortion care. It argued that freedom of conscience and religion is protected for all persons in the Constitution and that, under comparative case law, educational institutions and private associations have been recognized as conscientious objectors in the context of education.

Full texts of Decision and Submissions:  Decision in Spanish -295 pagesAccompanying documentsOther Submissions     New: English Decision: 149 pages includes a Table of Contents for both English and Spanish editions. 

Chilean law professors who addressed the Court included:
Prof. Veronica Undurraga  presentation  in Spanish.
Prof. Lidia Casas Becerra  
presentation in Spanish, at minute 42.

Amicus curiae brief re: International consensus on abortion law with respect to decriminalization, by Joanna Erdman and Rebecca Cook:
Spanish and English briefs in one PDF.

Amicus curiae brief re conscience and conscientious objection by Prof. Bernard M. Dickens:  English PDF    Spanish PDF.

“Chile Celebrates its First Steps Towards Fulfilling Abortion Rights,” by Lidia Casas and Lieta Vivaldi, on Health and Human Rights Journal website.   Blogpost in English

Symposium — 5 scholars comment on Constitutional Court abortion ruling:   Symposium   The Introduction to the symposium is Introduction,   Part I,   Part IIPart III, Part IV, and   Part V.

Press Release from Center for Reproductive Rights.  Online in English.

Newspaper report in English.

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