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Thousands March in Chile Demanding Abortion Law Overhaul

Demonstrators take part in a march for free abortion rights and to demand an end to sexism and gender violence in the education system, in Santiago, Chile, July 25, 2018.

Thousands of people took part in a march in the Chilean capital demanding reform of laws that allow abortion only in cases of rape or reasons of health.

Protesters held up banners and placards and chanted to the beat of a drum as they marched in Santiago Wednesday night, with many wearing the green scarves adopted by pro-abortion campaigners in neighboring Argentina.

Demonstrators are demanding not just that abortion is entirely legalized but also that it should be free.

"Abortion is a basic human right. This march is necessary to achieve what we've always wanted," Isidora, a 19-year-old student, told AFP.

"It gives us greater strength on the road to freedom."

Campaigners have been galvanized across Latin America after Argentine lawmakers approved a bill to decriminalize abortion.

The Argentine senate began debating the issue earlier this month with a final decision due to be made in August, after the lower house of Congress narrowly passed the bill last month.

However, the bill has faced fierce opposition from the influential Catholic Church.

In Chile, former military dictator Augusto Pinochet criminalized abortion in all its forms in 1989 and that law remained in place until 2017 with the approval of a bill proposed by then-president Michelle Bachelet that decriminalized abortion in three cases: rape, a risk to the mother's life, and disability.

"Those three cases account for only three percent of abortions in Chile and the other 97 percent of women do so secretly and at high risk, and we cannot allow that to happen," said Macarena Castaneda, spokeswoman for a feminist movement that attended the march.

Abortion remains mostly illegal in Latin America. Only in Uruguay and Cuba is it entirely legal, as well as in Mexico City, the capital of Mexico.

Most countries follow the same rules as Chile, permitting it in only the three cases.

In El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua — traditionally Catholic countries but where Protestantism and atheism are on the rise — abortion remains completely banned.

"Argentina opened the debate, now it's a public health issue," said 29-year-old historian Francisca.