|Chile Table of Contents
Divorce, Abortion, and Contraception
Chile is one of the last countries in the world that has not legalized divorce. A law permits marital separation under certain conditions, but it does not terminate the conjugal bond. Despite the Catholic hierarchy's opposition to the legalization of divorce, at least half of all Chileans apparently favor enacting such a law. In the 1990 CEP-Adimark survey, 55.6 percent of those interviewed were in favor of legal divorce.
The differences of opinion on divorce among various categories of the population are noteworthy. Support for its legalization is slightly stronger among men than among women. It is much stronger among young adults than among the middle-aged, while only a minority of older people support it. High-income respondents constitute the group most in favor, whereas lower-income respondents largely disapprove (70.1 percent to 15.5 percent); a small majority of those with middle and lower incomes support legalization. A slight majority of self-identified Catholics are in favor, but among practicing Catholics a majority reject the notion. A small majority of those who said they are Protestant reject legalization. This rejection is stronger among weekly churchgoers. Curiously, Protestants (mainly Pentecostals, who tend to have very traditional opinions) are closer to the positions of the Catholic hierarchy than are Catholic respondents.
Although Chile does not have a divorce law, a surrogate and well-institutionalized means of severing conjugal bonds is the annulment of civil marriages. Civil marriage ceremonies are the only legally valid ones, and couples who have church weddings must also marry at the civil registry. The annulment is usually done with the assistance of attorneys who argue that there has been some procedural error in the civil marriage process. It often involves obtaining witnesses who would attest to facts, whether true or false, that vitiate the original proceedings, such as asserting that the couple does not reside where they said they did when they were married. This is enough to make a case for invalidating the action of the civil registrar who performs the ceremony and draws up the papers. To a large extent, Chile's lack of a proper divorce law can be attributed to the ability of separated couples to annul their marriage following these procedures. As a result, the political pressure to enact a divorce law is diffused. In 1991, the latest year for which there were published figures, there were 5,852 marriage annulments (and 91,732 marriages) in the country; the number of annulments showed a steady increase over seven years from a level of 3,987 in 1984. The actual number of separations of married couples is much higher, especially among those who lack the means to hire the necessary annulment lawyers. New bonds are often established outside of wedlock.
Whereas the Chilean public seems somewhat favorably inclined toward the legalization of divorce, it shows considerable resistance to legal abortion. Although survey results vary, according to the way questions on abortion are posed, the notion of permitting abortion on demand has only a small proportion of supporters. It varied from 5 percent in the CEP-Adimark December 1990 survey to a high of 22.4 percent in the July 1991 survey conducted by the Center for Contemporary Reality Studies (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Contemporánea--CERC). However, a relatively large proportion of survey respondents favored abortion under certain circumstances. The CERC survey of July 1991 showed that 76 percent considered abortion permissible when "the mother's life is in danger or when the baby will be born with malformations"; similarly, 53.4 percent thought that abortion should be permitted in cases of rape. While nearly half of all respondents rejected abortion in all circumstances, 44.7 percent would permit it with qualifications.
There is a considerable degree of consensus among the various categories of respondents to a December 1991 CEP-Adimark survey, except for individuals of high socioeconomic status and practicing Catholics or Protestants. As on the issue of divorce, the first group had the most liberal views of all, with only 14 percent agreeing with the notion that abortion should not be permitted and 78 percent accepting it in qualified circumstances. Practicing Catholics rejected abortion in a somewhat greater proportion than the average, and they accepted it in qualified circumstances to a slightly lesser extent. Practicing Protestants (mainly Pentecostals) had the most restrictive views of all: more than 80 percent rejected abortion outright, 17.6 accepted it in qualified circumstances, and a tiny fraction agreed that the matter should be left up to the individual woman. Although illegal, abortions are commonly performed in Chile. Social science researchers have estimated that about a third of all Chilean women have one or more induced abortions during their childbearing years.
Birth control methods of all types find broad acceptance among the population. This is true even of practicing Catholics, 81.3 percent of whom found their use acceptable. National health programs have facilitated access to birth control since the 1960s, and the use of contraceptives is widespread. However, these programs provide easy access to birth control only to women who have already had at least one child because the programs are mainly organized to provide prenatal and postpartum primary care. Birth control is therefore more difficult to obtain for childless women, especially younger and poorer women. Thus first pregnancies out of wedlock as well as first marriages of pregnant brides are frequent. This differential in contraceptive practices is largely responsible for the fact that the proportion of births out of wedlock over the total number of births increased with the overall decline in the birth rate. The number of births in wedlock has fallen almost by half since the initiation of the contraception programs, while the births out of wedlock have remained fairly constant. This means that currently a third of all births are out of wedlock, up from 17.5 percent in 1965.
Premarital sex among couples in love with each other is also broadly accepted, except among practicing Protestants, only 40 percent of whom approved, and among those age fifty-five and older, only 39 percent of whom approved. Sixty-three percent of practicing Catholics accepted this practice, despite the strong disapproval of the church hierarchy. On this issue, practicing Protestants again are closer to the Catholic hierarchy's teachings than are lay Catholics themselves. The acceptance of premarital relations compounds the problems caused by the relatively more difficult access to birth control for childless women.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress