One Step Beyond—How Victory was Won in Chile
After 27 years of protests, struggles by various groups and failed legislative initiatives, the Chilean Congress finally passed—after three years of proceedings—the Law on Abortion in the Three Cases proposed by President Michelle Bachelet. Chile now allows abortion for pregnancies endangering the life of the woman, when the fetus will not survive the pregnancy and in pregnancies resulting from rape. This landmark law was the culmination of a process in which various events and circumstances coalesced, including a dramatic and sometimes difficult cultural shift that has come about in Chilean society. In 2010 we created MILES Chile to bring together a group of professionals, activists and partners in the struggle with whom we had been working on this topic for many years. MILES is a nongovernmental organization that sought to give voice to the citizen movement that had been building in defense of sexual and reproductive rights for Chilean women. Before we founded MILES, we had been working for many years conducting research on sexual and reproductive health at the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO) and other academic institutions. We had also been working with Members of Congress who were in favor legalizing abortion. We insisted on raising awareness about the need for legal abortion by conducting and sharing studies, investigative research and public opinion data, which despite our limited resources, allowed us to gradually elevate abortion rights in the public agenda. In 2014, thanks to the unconditional support provided by Catholics for Choice, we were able to take a big step forward in our struggle, putting aside our research efforts to focus entirely on advocacy and civic mobilization.
We had four elements that helped us to eventually secure success. First, a key part of our strategy was that we leveraged public opinion research for our advocacy. We sought to avoid polarizing language around ideology in our arguments and instead focus on the facts and basic rights, which we spoke about widely in interviews with media outlets, publications, news articles and various public forums. As a result, we were able to bring to our side a broad spectrum of feminists, academics, healthcare providers, political party members, legislators and union members. We formed an unprecedented coalition in the midst of an emerging political climate of social movements that arose in the 2010s to push for citizen demands in education, the environment, regional development, and other pressing issues.
Through these efforts, the topic of abortion made its way into public discourse, and various public opinion polls began to show that abortion rights had high levels of support from citizens. Over the years, public support stayed within a steady level of more than 60 to 70 percent and it was broad-based across all socioeconomic groups. Nevertheless, the polls also revealed that among the three cases of abortion that proposed legislation would legalize, the one that had the lowest levels of support were instances of rape. As a result, we systematically focused our efforts on raising awareness about the various ways that rape impacts the lives of affected women and their families.
A second significant element in our experience was that we took a realistic approach to abortion reform, without proclaiming grand ambitions with regards to our ideology or the goal we sought. This allowed us to create broad political and social alliances that were oftentimes incomprehensible or unpalatable to those who sought full legal abortion for all cases, a goal that is simply untenable given current conditions in Chilean society. We disregarded the ideological or political position of the groups and individuals we reached out to, and instead focused on one simple question: “Are you for or against a law that would allow abortion in the three cases?” This approach brought us a lot of failures of understanding from the most radical left wing groups who accused us of being “reformists” or, worse, of “having sold out to the far right” because among those in favor of legal abortion in the three case were and still are political groups that are center right and Catholic. These claims of aligning with the far right are not taken lightly in Chile, 27 years after the end of the ultra-right wing military dictatorship of Pinochet during which many people suffered repression and persecution.
Nevertheless, we always tried to avoid being in the crossfire between activist and organizations with differing views. Instead, we kept our focus on advocating for legal abortion in the three cases and providing support to women who started to reach out to our organization looking for help. MILES was able to show the vast plurality of women who supported the proposed abortion law, including many Catholic women who played a critical role in illustrating that MILES had diverse and mainstream support across society. For instance, we had two important Catholic women— former Christian Democratic Minister of Women’s Affairs Laura Albornoz and renowned independent journalist Beatriz Sánchez (also a left-wing coalition presidential candidate in 2017)—participate in a public campaign we organized with support from Catholics for Choice.
The third essential part of our struggle was that we had a consistent and systematic communications strategy, which was likely the strongest element in overall strategy. We had several communication and advocacy lines of effort throughout our campaign—each with their own plans and objectives and aimed at different target groups— which focused on generating collective impacts that would build on one another. Among these lines of effort were: various legislative initiatives that we presented in conjunction with various legislators; massive marches; sit-ins; public candle lightings; interviews with the media—from the largest and most important media outlets to the smallest neighborhood publications, none were discounted; videos; social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook; participation by Miles staff in solidarity with marches convened by other social actors with a host of different objectives; public challenges to presidential and legislative candidates to articulate their position regarding abortion and to include it in their government programs; sharing of testimonials by real women who had gone through the lived experience of seeking an abortion and not having the legal backing or government support to do so; presenting before international tribunals, such as the Inter-American Committee on Human Rights; and creating supporting background materials—based on sound technical arguments and directed at parliamentarians, political leaders, journalists, media outlets, women’s rights and feminist organizations. We also trained hundreds of healthcare professionals on values clarification and reproductive rights. Thanks to support we received from healthcare workers from Mexico City, Colombia and Uruguay, we also trained healthcare professionals on abortion techniques to which they had not had access in 27 years.
We were also lucky to receive support from a prestigious global public relations firm, the Grey Group, which helped us to produce three videos that had a big impact raising public awareness and support for our campaign both in Chile and internationally (and for which MILES and the producer received two awards in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival). These pro-bono videos allowed us to raise the profile of the abortion debate in Chile abroad, before it got traction at home, which put pressure from the outside on the national debate. The global attention that the videos received led to attacks and accusations at home that we were portraying Chile as a brutal and backwards country when it came to abortion. But at the same time, Chileans knew deep down in their consciences that they saw themselves reflected in the darkest parts of Chilean society portrayed in the film, and slowly but surely critical conversations took place in homes across Chile.
Our communications strategy allowed us to build out a cadre of powerful and credible spokespeople, which I was able to lead. We brought in and trained young leaders to join our struggle and they are now the fresh new faces for a fight that continues to ensure the law is effectively implemented. They will fight the powers that be, which under the new government are trying to apply pressure and influence to hinder the law’s implementation in every way possible, including by allowing doctors who work in public as well as private hospitals to conscientiously object to an abortion on the spot.
We were able to generate an excitement that dissolved political and ideological differences and instead brought everyone together around the common good and shared values—like the right of women to decide over their own bodies. By focusing on this shared value of bodily autonomy, we created an identity and a stance that generated powerful mainstream support from a wide spectrum of social actors. By using the central concept, “Somos Miles” (“We are thousands”) in our communications strategy, we were able to build out innovative ideas, messages and campaigns that every day more and more people were able to get behind.
The fourth element that proved decisive in elevating the scale of our advocacy strategy across various lines of effort was the support and solidarity we received from international organizations. The first offer of help came from Catholics for Choice. Their support was much more significant than financial assistance, because it came from a Catholic organization. In Chile—where the Catholic church plays a preeminently powerful role and used all its powers to try to prevent the abortion law from passing—the support we received from Catholics for Choice had a powerful impact in helping us to address this opposition. We also received funding from Ipas, IPPF, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Isabel Allende Foundation and several other smaller global and local donors.
This support allowed us to have more comprehensive, in depth and sustainable lines of effort, though we did also face defamation campaigns and harsh attacks from ultraconservative sectors and members of the Catholic and Evangelical religious right. Nevertheless, we are sure that without the support we received from international organizations, our campaign may not have reached the scale and impact that it achieved, especially during decisive moments in our efforts to get the law approved.