Santiago, Chile – In one of the most socially-conservative countries in Latin America, the case of a pregnant 11-year old girl who was raped in Chile by her mother's partner has set off a national debate about abortion.
Chileans were outraged on Friday after state TV reported that the girl is 14 weeks pregnant and was raped repeatedly over two years. Police in the remote southern city of Puerto Montt arrested her mother's partner, who confessed to abusing the fifth grader. The case was brought to their attention by the pregnant child's maternal grandmother.
Doctors say the girl's life and that of the fetus are at high risk. But in Chile, ending the pregnancy is not an option.
Chile allowed abortions for medical reasons until they were outlawed in 1973 by Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. The current government of conservative President Sebastian Pinera has opposed any loosening of the prohibition.
Many Chileans were venting outrage on social media Friday. Some started an online campaign to demand legalization of abortion in cases of rape or health risks for the mother.
"When I heard about this little girl my first reaction was to support abortion because I think it's the best option in this case," said Eduardo Hernández, a 30-year-old web designer.
"It's the first online petition I've signed in my life, but I think this case really deserves it," Hernández said. "We should have a law. I hope this case serves as precedent to have a serious discussion about abortion."
"We're faced with an 11-year-old girl whose childhood has been damaged and she's pregnant," Nicole Salvatierra, a 26-year-old-journalist, told The Associated Press in an email exchange after earlier speaking out about the case on Twitter. "The state is blocking a way to revert this situation. It's twice as bad for her. That's what's criminal, not interrupting the pregnancy in the context that justifies it."
But more conservative members of Chilean society oppose all abortions and the nation's Senate last year rejected three bills last year that would have eased the absolute ban.
"The Senate has voted in favor of life, of the unborn child, a policy the government has defended," Cristian Larroulet, a top presidential aide, said after one of the votes.
One of the bills would have permitted abortion if two doctors said it was needed because of risks to a mother's life or other medical reasons, such as a fetus with low chances of survival. Another one of the measures that was rejected would have allowed abortion in the event of rape.
Forty years after a brutal dictatorship, Chile remains firmly conservative in social matters. It legalized divorce in 2004, becoming one of the last nations in the world to grant married couples that right.
"Chile is a country that has modernized when it comes to its economy, but when it comes to its social and political culture, it has become stagnant and this is seen with the abortion issue," said Marta Lagos, head of the Santiago-based pollster Mori.
"It's a country that is adverse to change, that panics with any change, which is seen as a threat," Lagos said. "The weight of Catholicism is still a major issue and we also have a millenary indigenous culture that always lived alienated from the rest of world. We're part of that millenary culture of isolation."
The Roman Catholic Church retains a strong influence over society, although it has lost credibility since 2010, when four men alleged that they were abused by one of Chile's most revered priests when they were between 14 and 17 years old.
Pinera announced measures last year to combat child abuse, responding to a popular outcry over a spike in reports of these crimes. He toughened penalties on convicted pedophiles, increased the forensic institute's budget and created a children's ombudsman to protect their rights.
His center-right government also banned convicted pedophiles from working near children under a law that also requires those convicted of sexually abusing minors to be registered in a database. Reports of sexual abuse of children under the age of 14 rose by 22 percent in the first half of 2012.
But change comes slowly in Chile. An anti-discrimination law was stuck in Congress for seven years and only passed in 2012 after the killing of a gay man who was beaten by attackers who carved swastikas into his body.
"The Chilean elite is very conservative and this has had an influence in Congress," said Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist who teaches at New York University. "Laws, therefore, change at a much slower pace than the rest of Chilean society. Because society is much less conservative than it was 15 or 20 years ago."
Former president Michelle Bachelet, the frontrunner in the Nov. 17 presidential elections, favors legalizing abortion in cases of rape or risks to the health of the mother or the child. She spent the past several years heading the U.N. agency for women.
Her opponent, former Economy Minister Pablo Longueira, was close to Pinochet. He opposes abortion and the so-called day-after pill.
Daniel Alvarado, a prosecutor for the public ministry, told state TV that the case of the pregnant 11-year-old would be treated as a rape in any circumstance because at that age a person "doesn't have maturity to consent to a sexual relationship within law."
"It's not possible for any person at that age to have the capacity to understand the consequences on an act of that nature," Alvarado added.
In Latin America, only Cuba, Uruguay and some local governments make early abortions accessible to all women.
Uruguay recently passed a law authorizing elective abortions in the first three months of pregnancy in the most liberal law of its kind in Latin America. Passage of the law was widely seen as a landmark for a region in which many countries outlaw abortion in all circumstances.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.