This post is contributed by Dr Cordelia Freeman of the University of Nottingham. It is based on a full-length journal article available at: Freeman, C. (2017). The crime of choice: abortion border crossings from Chile to Peru. Gender, Place & Culture, 24(6), 851-868.
The Chile-Peru abortion trail is almost unknown but provides a useful way to reflect on the experiences of Irish women who travel to Great Britain in search of abortion healthcare. Drawing on research on the Chile-Peru case, this post reflects on some similarities and differences with the Ireland-Great Britain example.
Chile has had some of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the world. Until last yearabortion was illegal in every single case and now it will be permitted in three very strict cases; if the pregnancy was a result of rape, when the woman’s life is at risk, and when a foetus is not viable. The criminalisation of abortion has not prevented women from procuring abortions but instead has pushed the practice further underground with fatal results. The primary cause of maternal mortality in Chile is complications arising from clandestine abortions and mortality due to abortion is between 10 and 100 times higher in Latin America than in most European countries. The National Health Service estimates that in 2014 there were almost 34,000 admissions after abortions which had gone wrong. Women are quite literally dying due to state legislation.
This risk is not shared equally among all Chilean women.Wealthier women can pay for the safety and discretion of a private doctor who they can trust won’t go to the police. A safe abortion in Chile can cost $500-1000, which is beyond the means of many Chileans. Therefore, only women with money can afford a safe private procedure within the country or can travel to another country where it is not illegal. Chile’s geography makes it very isolated and means leaving the country is very costly. However, one part of Chile is closely connected to another jurisdiction: the northernmost city of Arica. In this region of Chile women have the opportunity of crossing the border to Peru easily and quickly where abortion options are more cheaper and more accessible.
While abortion legislation in Peru is less draconian than in Chile, it does remain illegalin most cases.A woman that consents to an abortion can be sentenced to up to two years in prison while anyone who performs an illegal abortion can be sentenced to 1 to 6 years in prison. However, despite this, abortions are more easily accessible, cheaper, and punished less often than in Chile.The result of this has been an ‘abortion trail’ whereby women travel from Northern Chile to Tacna, a city in Southern Peru in search of abortion.
The cross-border ‘abortion trail’ between Chile and Peru resembles the travel by Irish women to Great Britain, where a long-establish ‘abortion corridor’ sees 9-10 Irish women travel every day. Chile and the Republic of Ireland are both Catholic countries where the abortion debate has become politicised instead of being seen as a personal, healthcare issue. Strict, prohibitive legislation within national borders has meant that women have been forced to travel elsewhere in order to find a safe(r), more accessible, or legal abortion. This means that in both examples, ‘trails’ have emerged due to the frequency of travel and kinship networks whereby routes and clinics are recommended between friends and family as well as organisations.
While there are these similarities between the Irish and Chilean cases there are two significant differences. The first is that when Irish women travel to Britain for abortion healthcare they are able to visit licensed healthcare professionals. Information about how and where to access safe clinics is available online to Irish women, though laws restrict what Irish doctors from providing detailed information on how/ where to access abortion in England. By contrast, when Chilean women travel to Peru for abortion healthcare they are committing an illegal act and visiting clandestine clinics of unknown quality. Given the underground nature of abortion provision in Peru, the abortion provider may not even have received any training and given the lack of regulation there is no avenue for finding out which clinics will be safe, hygienic, and run by a medical practitioner. Given this there is a significant amount of fear of something going wrong. One interviewee reported: “I know it’s a risk that the standards of hygiene there aren’t the best, or so I have been told, that they’re scary places.” Another interviewee who had been herself for an abortion recalled: “Obviously I was scared for my life, oh it was awful, yeah I was terrified, it’s like these are things that aren’t legal you know, anything illegal is going to scare you because it’s not safe, you can’t go to someone if it goes wrong, you don’t have that right, there is no right to an abortion”. While Irish women undoubtedly also experience fear on the abortion trail, they have much more information and assurance with regards to the safety of the procedure upon their arrival in England.
The second difference is that travel to Britain for Irish women is time-consuming and can be expensive. To cross the Irish Sea, women have to travel by aeroplane or boat, both of which need organising beforehand, and they will often need at least one night’s accommodation in Englad. However, women who travel from Arica in Northern Chile to the nearest town in Peru, Tacna can do so very easily and cheaply. There are regular buses that run a shuttle service across the border for $2 and take just over an hour. This means that women can travel spontaneously and cheaply and often they can be back in Chile after just a few hours. This means that women with jobs, children or other caring responsibilities can make the trip much more covertly. One healthworker I interviewed suggested that women can find a level of anonymity in Peru which is almost impossible in Arica which is small and gossipy. She told me that “in Tacna, it’s more accessible, no-one asks any questions”.
The comparison of the Chile-Peru and Ireland-England abortion trails helps us to better understand how abortion trails function across context, with important similarities and differences. As such, it allows us to theorise abortion travel in a global context. However, there are key differences and particularities that mean that the way trails work and how they are experienced by those who travel them will depend on their political and geographical contexts.