Gender and Health in Latin America: Interview, Abortion Rights (Chile)
As a topic of discussion in the United States, abortion has long raised red flags. Not surprisingly, it is hardly a neutral subject in other national settings. Yet, apart from questions about the origin of life and legal questions about abortion rights, there are other dimensions to the history of abortion that relate to the lives of individual people on the local level.
The following source is an interview with a Chilean woman who violated her country’s abortion laws, and is part of a larger study based on the oral history accounts of 159 women from poor sectors of Chilean society. The study gives insights into the methods by which women who had abortions are reported to the police and describes the criminal process that abortion providers and their “accomplices” undergo. In Chile, abortion is illegal under all circumstances, not even to save the life of the mother. Women who have abortions frequently go to prison. Legal questions, once again, are only one part of the story, and too easily overshadow the individual experiences and challenges of women. Thus, in the larger context of the issues surrounding unwanted pregnancies, one must consider the role of the individual, the family, and the state.
This source is a part of the Gender and Health in Latin America, 1980-2010 teaching module.
Interview with Carmen
June 5, 1996
Carmen was born in a small town in the southern region of the country, the fifth of six children in a peasant family. At 12 she began to work as a maid in a private home. Carmen worked in various homes in Santiago and in other cities as well.
I stayed four to six months in each house. I didn’t last too long even when I had good bosses, and if they were bad, I didn’t last longer than two weeks.
At 16 she had a boyfriend, the neighbor of her older sister.
We didn’t see each other much, because I was always going from one place to the next . . . and then . . . I got pregnant . . . by accident. I was 17, going on 18. It was a good relationship. When I knew I was pregnant, we had broken up already, but he came back when he found out I was pregnant. But after five months of pregnancy we broke up for good. He was just a kid.
At first, Carmen’s boyfriend denied he was the baby’s father. Later on he accepted it, although he never legally recognized the child as his. After the child’s birth, Carmen went back to Santiago, where she worked shifts in a factory.
After that, Carmen had two other boyfriends. She got pregnant again.
I don’t even know how it happened. We had been going out for a year. But we went out just for fun, not for the future, just for fun. . . . We liked each other.
Although at various times she had used contraceptives, such as oral contraceptives and injections she got in the pharmacy without any orientation or information, this time she didn’t apply what she knew about contraception.
I knew I could get pregnant but I took the risk. Sometimes you don’t think of the consequences. . . . I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want anybody to find out. I knew I was pregnant and right away I told myself I can’t do this, because with the child it was already too difficult. I was helping my sister, I was helping her pay the rent. We lived alone, but after my first child was born we both had to worry about him, and unfortunately they told me the child was epileptic. I closed up.
Carmen thought of having an abortion.
I went over to the woman and I told her I knew she did these things. And that I was pregnant and needed her help. And she told me everything I had to bring and where to buy it. I bought the things and took them to her: a surgeon’s probe, cotton, alcohol. . . . When I went back to her, she put the probe in and told me to take something for the infection. But the probe came out in the afternoon.
Carmen had a difficult afternoon and night.
In the morning when I got up I felt sick, I had a strong contraction, and I went to the bathroom, and everything came out really quickly. I had so many feelings inside, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t tell anybody. The only thing I remember is I started to work and I felt well physically, I didn’t have a fever or anything.
The toilet was clogged and she called the plumber, who showed up after two days.
The plumber came, unclogged the toilet, and everything was there. He even called me and I didn’t say anything and kept on as if nothing had happened. Then the boss came and I told her what the plumber had found, but I didn’t say who had done it. She thought of her daughter’s friends, also of a girl I had brought over, but never thought of me.
Carmen’s boss immediately called the police, after interrogating all the women in the house except for Carmen: “I don’t know if she had a feeling it had been me or if she trusted me.” She also called her brother, who was a lawyer and a politician, and he came over quickly.
The police came and also a very rude woman. I told the police I hadn’t done anything, because I had thrown away the probe and everything. They told me to say I hadn’t noticed anything. I said I had been pregnant but that I hadn’t done it to myself. I denied it until . . . I talked with Don Sergio . . . When the boss’s brother came, he told them to leave us alone, and he talked with me, and I told him what had happened.
She was taken to the Police Station, where she told them the facts. She didn’t know the exact address of the place where she had had the probe inserted, but she knew how to get there. They took her there and they told her to knock on the door with the pretext of paying what she owed for the procedure. She did so and the woman who had performed the abortion was also arrested, causing a great commotion in the neighborhood. “They came out from everywhere, insulting me and supporting her.” Carmen was later taken to the Emergency Room, and from there she was sent to Salvador Hospital. She was hospitalized there and the lining of her uterus was scraped even though there were no signs of infection. She was in custody all the time. Carmen felt the auxiliary personnel at the hospital tried to extend her stay there, to keep her from having to spend too long in jail.
The policeman was there day and night. Yes, day and night, standing there by the door all day and all night.
Carmen was in jail for three months. When she was taken to court with other prisoners, she was separated from them, because there was concern about retaliation from the woman who had performed the abortion, who was also in the same prison.
When they called me at first, I got in the car and the other women all jumped on me so the guards took me out and put me in the back, because the other one said she knew people inside, so they took me and put me in the back.
A lawyer from the Legal Aid Corporation was in charge of her case.
[B]ecause in the beginning it was Don Sergio, but since he is against abortion and is a public figure, how could he defend me? . . . So at the end it was someone from the corporation, but I think he didn’t do anything. Don Sergio did more making phone calls. The lawyer—I don’t think he did anything, because he never called me to say, Hey, listen, this is going like this. Really he never said anything, because what I knew was what my boss would have someone tell me, but he never said; Your case is going this way. I knew everything through my boss.
One day she got a message from her boss, telling her she would be out of jail the next Monday. Her boss was waiting for her in court, after paying the bail.
When I got out of there, I thought it was all a lie, like I was still locked in. For the next three days I was still feeling locked in.
She decided to travel to her mother’s house.
After I got there they didn’t ask me anything. I don’t know if it was for better or worse. No one said anything. Not my mother or my brother. No one ever said anything. I really don’t know if I would have wanted them to ask me or not.
Carmen’s experience changed her relationship with her boss.
Suddenly she’ll start in on it, she’ll ask about it, then she’ll do the same thing. . . . And when I ask permission to go out for the weekend, she gives me permission and says remember not to get pregnant or not to go to bed with somebody. So sometimes we clash and I wish I could leave. . . . I’m grateful, and I will always be grateful, but I’m not going to thank her every day for what she did for me. Always when people do something for you they want you to stay with them. So she wants me to stay with her forever and never to say anything that bothers her, because of what she did.
(Excerpted from an interview conducted by Gloria Salazar)
“Foreword: Interview with Carmen.” June 5, 1996. In Women Behind Bars: Chile’s Abortion Laws, A Human Rights Analysis. Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, The Open Forum on Reproductive Health and Rights. New York, 1998.