The Health Committee of Chile's Chamber of Deputies has voted out a measure to permit the killing of human fetuses in three cases: rape, fetal malformation, and danger to the life of the mother. According to opinion polls, each of these "exceptions" to the protection of life enjoys public support. A July 2015 poll by Plaza Publica-CADEM reports 74 percent support abortion when the life of the mother is endangered, 72 percent in case of rape, and 72 percent when there is a high probability the fetus will not survive, whereas according to the constitution, "the law protects the life of the unborn." Of course, the Constitution is not there to protect the lives of the popular, and the well being of the well loved, it exists to protect those who are disliked and discarded.
President Michelle Bachelet's political coalition has a majority of votes in Congress, and they can force legislation on many fronts. The government coalition includes militants who would like to see abortion legalized under an even wider set of circumstances, and others whose consciences pull them one way, even as the leaders of their parties are pushing in the other. But on abortion there is no middle ground. The core supporters of the abortion measure know that once the constitutional protections of the unborn are violated, they can make quick work of the remaining limitations on abortion, and the slaughter will begin in earnest. Today, approximately three-quarters of all children born in Chile are born outside the protections of marriage. While in a small fraction of cases both parents are committed to raising their child together, in most of these cases the mother is economically alone. No prizes for guessing what happens to hundreds of thousands of defenseless little people when abortion becomes "safe", legal and available.
For the unborn there remain two lines of defense; firstly Congress may resist the political temptation to pander to the polls and reject legislation they know is morally wrong and juridically unconstitutional. The reader will please stop laughing. Secondly, the Constitutional Tribunal may actually do its job and recognize that the legislation violates the remarkably clear language in Article 19 of the Chilean Constitution. This is a real possibility.
Of course, President Bachelet, who has put her government behind the abortion legislation, doesn't always believe in doing what the polls tell her to do. A poll released in late July by the opinion firm Adimark shows that after a year and a half of sluggish economic performance and public scandal, Bachelet's popularity has gone spelunking at 26 percent, meaning she is not popular with about the same fraction of the public who want to see the Constitution violated in the case of likely fetal inviolability. If someone were to ask for her resignation, they would undoubtedly receive a lecture about Chapter 4 Article 25 (specifying a fixed four year term for presidents) of the same constitution she is working so hard to violate. But evidently Her Excellency the President of the Republic has one set of criteria for her powerful and important self, and another for the weak and helpless individuals who perish under the abortionist's knife.
Chile's political history has had some difficult episodes, including a bloody civil war in 1891, an attempt to impose socialism on an unwilling public in the early 1970s, and a ruthless military government that held sway for over 16 years. Today Chileans have the opportunity to choose a different path, one in which the rule of law is a reality rather than just a convenient piety. Two millennia ago Pontius Pilate made a mockery of justice when, in the interests of expediency, he condemned Christ to death. Today we will see how far the Chilean Congress, and the Constitutional Tribunal have progressed since the Roman governor of Palestine acceded to a crowd that bayed "Give us Barabbas!"
John Londregan, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, is the Ernesto Silva Bafalluy visiting scholar at the Universidad de Desarollo.