In Chile, a country with a Roman Catholic majority, the Catholic hierarchy extends its reach deep into the political sphere, blocking attempts to liberalize laws that would promote women’s rights as well as attempts to educate the public on reproductive health. Rev. Enrique Opaso led efforts to squash a government-sponsored AIDS prevention program that would distribute free condoms at a popular Pacific coastal resort. Opaso, who says that he is “not necessarily against condoms as such,” had threatened to burn piles of condoms in protest. Recently, the Church also blocked attempts to legalize emergency contraception (EC) in Chile even though abortion is illegal under all circumstances. Chilean women’s groups estimate that 180,000 women seek illegal abortions each year in Chile, and many pregnancies in the country are unplanned and unwanted. According to the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, in 1990, only 44 percent of all births were categorized as wanted by women. Further, abortion is a criminal act in Chile, and the government sends dozens of women, most of whom are low-income, to prison each year for illegal abortions.
Divorce in Chile is not left untouched by the Catholic Church. Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina has publicly decried any attempt to introduce legislation that would lift the ban on divorce, and Chile remains the only democracy to outlaw divorce with the exception of Malta. Attempts to change the laws have been fruitless. Meanwhile, right-wing Catholic groups such as Opus Dei are gaining more influence among the elite and strengthening their political weight.