Easing of Chile abortion ban hits roadbump

Santiago (AFP) - A plan to ease Chile's total ban on abortion hit a legislative roadblock Thursday when one deputy abstained from a vote, kicking the bill to a cross-party committee for review.

The setback was a blow to President Michelle Bachelet's government, which for the past two years has shepherded the legislation through the National Congress.

The text won Senate approval early Wednesday after a marathon debate before heading back to the Chamber of Deputies for the final vote.

Until now, the South American country has been part of a small group of socially conservative nations that barred abortion under all circumstances -- including the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Gabon, Haiti, Malta, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Senegal.

The new legislation aims to allow abortion in cases of rape, if the mother's life is at risk, or if the fetus presents a deadly birth defect.

"This is lamentable," said lawmaker Karol Cariola, after another member of the ruling coalition's Christian Democratic Party, Marcelo Chavez, abstained from voting, causing the lower house to fall short of a quorum even though the law would have passed 60 to 40.

Polls show that 70 percent of Chileans support legalized abortion under the three conditions introduced in the senate.

But the conservative opposition has vowed to challenge the law, even if it is upheld by Chile's Constitutional Court.

"We weren't expecting this," one opposition lawmaker, Maria Jose Hoffmann, said after the vote failed. "Miracles do happen."

Chile had permitted abortion for more than 50 years -- only if the mother's life was in danger or if the fetus was not viable -- until it was strictly outlawed in 1989 during the final days of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.

Under current law, abortion is punishable by up to five years in prison.

About 30,000 provoked or spontaneous abortions are nevertheless recorded each year in the country, though it is estimated that clandestine abortions could number around 160,000, according to a pro-abortion group.

The leftist Bachelet had pledged to see the easing of the ban enacted before she leaves office in March 2018.

"Approving the bill for voluntary interruption of a pregnancy is part of making Chile more fair for women," she wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

Conservative groups have historically had great influence in Chile, though they have lost ground in recent years. Chileans had to wait until 2004 to be able to divorce, and until just two years ago to enter into same-sex civil unions.