From Interstate - Journal of International Affairs VOL. 2015/2016 NO. 1
Sexual Relationships Shaped by the Political Agenda: A Case Study of Chile
It is a generally accepted fact that there are both public and private spheres of action, and that as set out in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy.”1 One may then conclude that actions conducted in the private sphere, such as a sexual relationship between two consenting adults should not be interfered with by external actors like the state. Furthermore, it can be argued that the state and other external factors such as political agenda are exerting an influence over such private matters as sexual relationships.
This essay intends to explore this phenomenon, by examining the way in which the political agendas’ control over and attitudes towards abortion, shapes and influences sexual relationships. The text will accomplish this by looking at the case of Chile; which is one of only four countries worldwide who have a legal and constitutional ban on all forms of abortion.2 The essay will begin by demonstrate why the ability to have an abortion is central to sexual relationships.
It will then explore how such an anti-abortion stance as that which exists in Chile, both in the political realm and in social constructs like Marianismo and machismo, heavily influence the political agenda. The text will also look at how such issues disproportionately affect certain sections of the Chilean population, for example women and those of lower income backgrounds. One must recognise that there are many contributing factors in both the construction of political agendas and in the limitation of access to services such as abortion; nor is abortion the only way in which the political agenda is able to shape sexual relationships. However, for the purpose of this essay and to focus the argument, the above factors will be those with which the argument is made.
In order to explore the way in which sexual relationships are shaped by the political agenda, one must first define what elements of it can be influenced. There are a number of rights associated with being a participant in a sexual relationship; such as being able to do so safely, consensually, and without the prejudice or discrimination of others.3 The right upon which this essays argument shall focus, is the right for individuals in a sexual relationship; ‘to reproduce, and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so.’4
Thus an essential part of a sexual relationship is the ability for the participants of the sexual relationship to choose if and when they wish the relationship to result in pregnancy. Furthermore it is their right to have the means to make that choice, through family planning services, contraception or as some controversially argue, abortion.5 Jansen puts forward the idea of ‘sexual self-determination,’ this is the idea that it is the right of a woman specifically to decide if, and when to reproduce.6
Whilst further establishing the right to abortion in a sexual relationship, this disproportionately places responsibility for reproductive choices, including abortion, on women. This also highlights that any violation of the rights of reproductive choice, as in the case of restrictive abortion laws, will affect female participants more than it will male participants of sexual relationships. One may argue therefore that those who are able to control access to such means and such rights, in particular abortion, will also be able to influence and shape sexual relationships.
There are a large number of factors which influence and control this access; varying from culture and race to social norms, however for the purpose of this argument there focus will be limited to the legal control of abortion by political institutions and individuals who are able to shape the political agenda. It is also important to highlight that there are numerous sources which form a part of the political agenda and that consequently shape law, for the purpose of the argument the political agenda shall be taken to be comprised of politicians and their main influences, for example social constructs like Marianismo.
Further to this, there are two different ways in which sexual relationships are shaped by the political agendas’ influence over abortion access. The first is the removal of choice altogether, for example if pregnancy occurs the participants have no option but to continue and raise the child or seek other options like adoption. The second is that choice is made unsafe, making only ‘backstreet’ abortions available, often at high cost and with dubious practices prevalent.7 This has the potential to further remove choice as such practices often have negative consequences, like causing infertility or other reproductive health issues.8
Once again one can identify inequalities, as women of higher income backgrounds are more likely to have the economic means to access safer and more discreet services run by trained doctors, this is highlighted by the disproportionate number of lower income women in Chile who are reported to the police by physicians as a result of their need to seek treatment for abortion related complications.9
One may argue that in such cases the rule of law is not being adequately practiced for all social groups and thus lower income individuals are affected more and are having their rights infringed upon; demonstrating deep inequality. This is reinforced by the fact that such individuals have very little protection of their reproductive rights under the constitution and often have no other option but to be represented under Chile’s legal aid system which often provides poorly trained lawyers.10
It is clear to see that the illegality of abortion, especially when the law is as absolute as it is in Chile will have a large impact not only on the reproductive rights of couples but also on the rights of women to sexual self-autonomy, whilst disproportionately affecting particular parts of society for whom the influence of the political agenda is more keenly felt.
In order to understand how the political agenda shapes sexual relationships one must explore the reasons for which the political agenda takes its stance. There are multiple factors which may be considered here, however, this essay considers the most important to be the influence of the social concepts of Marianismo and machismo, two ideas which deeply influence Latin America and Chile; socially, culturally and politically.11 Marianismo is, as the name suggests a concept based on the Virgin Mary. It highlights the characteristics of the ideal Latin American woman, empowering women through their ability to be mothers, which is viewed as an essential part of womanhood, and consequently of Marianismo.12
Here one may already identify features of the concept which by their nature are anti-abortion, and therefore may influence those who control the political agenda. An example of this is motherhood, aborting an unborn child is when simplified a rejection of the idea of motherhood. Marianismo is also exemplified by the self-sacrificial woman who would do anything for her family and for her children.13 One may extend this concept to pregnancy; in being self- sacrificial, a woman should be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, to die for the sake of her unborn child.
Once again anti-abortion logic may be identified, no matter how ill a mother is she should not sacrifice her child for the sake of herself, a view echoed by a key influencer on the Pinochet regime, Jaime Guzman who believed martyrdom, such as death during pregnancy should always be chosen over ‘moral fault’ or abortion to save the mother’s life.14 As such, even a therapeutic abortion would contradict this ideal of Marianismo.
It is essential also to consider that Marianismo is often seen as a social construct used to discipline and disempower women,15 this may seem paradoxical as motherhood is viewed by Marianismo as the core of women’s empowerment, however within this concept women are empowered in a the limited private sphere. The concept of machismo establishes that machista men have their power in the public or political realm, where they must appear strong and significantly, must not lose face by backing down from their viewpoint.16
Thus the suppression of women’s political agency through Marianismo and the political empowerment of men through machismo forms the basis for the dominance of men in politics and their influence over the political agenda. Consequently, one may conclude that it is not in their interests to pursue an agenda which would empower women and undermine the foundations of their power. Abortion, as an issue which goes against the very idea of Marianismo, would certainly do so.
Once again, inequality may be identified in that the ‘political disenfranchisement’ of the sections of society who are most affected by restrictive abortion laws17 means that among political elites there is a reinforced lack of political will to challenge the Marianismo status quo and thus abortion laws, which largely do not affect those in positions of power as they usually are of adequate economic status to seek alternate and safe solutions to unwanted pregnancy.18 Therefore, one may argue that one of the largest influencing factors on the political agenda’s anti-abortion stance are the concepts of Marianismo and machismo.
As aforementioned there are two primary ways in which the political agenda shapes sexual relationships; however there are certainly questions of the extent to which this shaping occurs or indeed is successful in achieving the desired level of restriction. For example at present under the constitution in Chile it is illegal for any kind of abortion to be carried out, no matter what the circumstances.19 Despite this, there are some factors which limit the effectiveness of this law. Firstly, sentencing for the crime tends to be relatively rare in Chile, despite the absolute nature of the laws;20 serious inequalities are drawn out in the cases of those women and accomplices who are convicted.
In this case especially, female participants of sexual relationships are affected far more. Though one would hope that in the situation of an unwanted pregnancy both participants, male and female would make choices regarding the continuation of the pregnancy, this is often not the case.21 Whilst a man can simply walk away from such a scenario a woman cannot, and is obligated to deal with the decisions and consequences, like conviction for having the abortion. Another factor is that there exists a legal loophole which allows abortion in a sense. After 22 weeks if the health of the mother is at risk an ‘interruption of pregnancy is’ is allowed.22
This can potentially cause the death of the unborn baby but nevertheless remains legal. This was the case in Chile in 2003 when a woman with a molar pregnancy was denied an abortion despite public outcry, at 22 weeks an interruption was undertaken after she developed serious health problems, showing that though she was forced to wait eventually the pregnancy was ended.23 Here one may draw on another way in which sexual relationships are shaped by the political agenda against legalising abortion.
With such loopholes available, there is a blurring of the legal and illegal, there have been many cases in which physicians have refused to carry out an interruption of pregnancy, despite the mother being at serious risk of death due to complications. A reason often cited in these cases is the fear both on the side of the physician and the mother that the action would be misconstrued as an attempt to abort the foetus as opposed to being a legal interruption, thus resulting in conviction for both parties.24 Such incidences have the potential to permanently affect the mother’s reproductive health,25 and as such leads to their sexual relationship being indirectly shaped by the political agenda.
Shepard presents a different viewpoint, putting forward the concept that a ‘double discourse on sexual and reproductive rights’ exists in Chile.26 This is the idea that the political agenda and its actions demonstrate a very different view of the issue of abortion than that of the majority of the public, 75% of which when asked said they would advocate the legalisation of abortion in the case of risk to mother’s life.27 This further verifies the idea that despite the restrictiveness of current laws in Chile, this does not always translate into public opinion and complete prevention of abortions and thus into the shaping of sexual relationships through this means.
Finally it is essential to highlight that the political agenda is an entity that contains many varying view points and thus it is the case that there is a section of the political agenda which in fact wish to liberalise Chile’s abortion laws and thus limit the extent to which the political agenda is able to shape sexual relationships.28 At present in Chile this is led by President Michelle Bachelet who has openly admitted her support for the liberalisation of Chile’s abortion law29 and in 2011 who supported the case for an 11 year old rape victim to be allowed an abortion30 One could certainly argue from this, that the political agenda may be changing and indeed the way in which it shapes sexual relationships through abortion law may also change.
It is the conclusion of this essay that the political agenda in Chile, defined as those in positions of political power or with influence over the law and policy making process, does shape sexual relationships.
This in particular is highlighted in the way the political agenda chooses not to address increasing demands by the Chilean people and some elements of government for the liberalisation of abortion laws31 which, despite arguments to suggest that such restrictions violate a number of human rights, remain some of the most restrictive abortion laws on the planet. The essay found that the political agenda was influenced largely by the social concepts of machismo and Marianismo which formed the basis for the disempowerment and disenfranchisement of women and the basis for the domination and empowerment of men in the political sphere.
This produced an interests-led agenda in which the liberalisation of laws such as on abortion, which might empower women and thus undermine the basis of the power of those in political positions, was not something that would logically be pursued. Whilst this is clearly not the only reason for which the political agenda chose this stance, the essay found it to be a dominant factor. Finally the essay argued that the restrictiveness of abortion law in Chile, despite its heavy impact, did not necessarily correlate to enforcement as alternative sources of abortion and indeed loopholes in the law were available.
Nevertheless, these loopholes were implemented disproportionately, they were either unavailable or led to negative impacts for low income individuals and women by comparison to those of wealthier backgrounds. In conclusion it is clear that the political agenda shapes sexual relationships through its restriction of abortion, though there are some limitations to the extent to which these laws are effectively carried out and therefore the extent on which they then shape sexual relationships in Chile.
Barrientos, J. ‘Sexual initiation for heterosexual individuals in Northern Chile’, Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 7:1 (2010) pp. 37-44.
Casas and Herrera, Maternity protection vs. maternity rights for working women in Chile: a historical review. Reproductive health matters 20, no. 40 (2012) pp. 139-147.
Casas-Becerra, L. ‘Women prosecuted and imprisoned for abortion in Chile’, Reproductive Health Matters, 5:9 (1997) pp. 29-36.
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Díaz et al. ‘Acceptability of emergency contraception in Brazil, Chile, and Mexico: Perceptions of emergency oral contraceptives’, Cadernos de Saúde Pública, 19:5 (2003) pp. 1507-1517.
Fraser, B. Tide begins to turn on abortion access in South America. The Lancet 383, no. 9935 (2014) pp. 2113-2114.
Huffington Post, Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera praises 11- year old pregnant girl for keeping baby after rape, Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/10/chile-president-11-year-old- pregnant_n_3572539.html [Accessed 03 November 2014].
Jansen, Y. ‘Right to Freely Have Sex-Beyond Biology: Reproductive Rights and Sexual Self-Determination’, The Akron L. Rev., 40:311 (2007) pp. 81-111.
Kaelber, L., Latinas and Abortion: The Role of Acculturation, Religion, Reproductive History and Familism (2012). Open Access Dissertations. Paper 787.
Shepard, B. ‘The "Double Discourse" on Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Latin America: the Chasm Between Public Policy and Private Actions’, Health and Human Rights, 4:2 (2000) pp. 110-143.
Shepard and Casas-Becerra, ‘Abortion policies and practices in Chile: ambiguities and dilemmas’, Reproductive health matters, 15:30 (2007) pp. 202-210.
Stevens, E. ‘Machismo and marianismo’, Society, 10:6 (1973) pp. 57-63
UN Women, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1995, Available from: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/index.html [Accessed 05 November 2014].
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