Research Communications

Hidden and Forbidden 

Documentary filmmaker Danilo Cortes sheds light on abortion in his native Chile

October 18, 2011

Chile is one of only a few countries in the world in which abortion is illegal under all circumstances. Any abortions performed are underground, and the issue is rarely debated or discussed. No one knows exactly how many women have received abortions, what exact methods are used, and what complications women may have endured.

Danilo Cortes, a Chilean graduate student in film, created a documentary, Forbidden, to explore the historical and social issues surrounding the country’s abortion policy. He examines the social attitude of the Chileans toward women’s right to choose and provides case studies of individuals whose lives have been impacted by the prohibition of abortion.

Danilo Cortes
Danilo Cortes. Photo credit: Robb DeCamp.

Abortion was not always illegal in the predominantly Catholic country. From 1931 to 1989, women experiencing life-threatening pregnancy complications could receive one. Abortion was not illegal until a more conservative, militant dictatorship took power, he says.

When Cortes began the documentary, he found that most Chileans knew little about the topic. He hopes the film will help raise awareness and generate discussion. Cortes finds it important to remain objective and present both sides of the debate.

“The topic of abortion is one of the most complex ethical issues for human beings. If I get too involved, I won’t be able to make a rational argument. I would rather guide the discussion than take a stance,” says Cortes, whose project was funded by an Ohio University Student Enhancement Award.

Cortes interviewed a total of 15 women, seven of whom he featured in the documentary. It was difficult for Cortes to find women to participate because most women either did not want to talk about their experience or did not trust him.

Depending on whether the women interviewed had their abortions during the legal or illegal period, some chose to reveal their identities on film while others did not. Most women who participated found it therapeutic to finally be able to tell their story, Cortes notes.

One woman Cortes interviewed was left by her boyfriend when he found out she was pregnant. She was too financially unstable to care for the child herself. Another had AIDS. One pregnancy resulted from rape.

In Chile, depending on the woman’s financial status, she may either seek out an abortion in another country, find a doctor willing to do the procedure, buy the day-after pill plus another prescription for ulcer treatment that rids the uterus of the fetus, or do it herself. There are risks involved with every decision.

Cortes plans to enter his documentary in American film festivals, but his primary focus is on showing the film in Chile. He has edited two versions of the film for these separate audiences, with the American version providing more context on the culture and politics of Chile.

Some older Chilean citizens who lived through the period in which abortion was legal in certain circumstances tend to view the procedure as a valid option if the woman’s life is in danger, Cortes notes. The general population tends to disapprove of abortion and wants to keep it illegal, however.

“A lot of people fear an eroding of the law,” Cortes says. “They believe that if they change this, it will lead to other things being changed.”

By Milissa Hudepohl

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, staff, and students.

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