Bid to ease Chile's abortion ban hits roadblock

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile’s Chamber of Deputies fell one vote short of passing the Senate version of a bill easing the country’s strict abortion law, a surprise setback to President Michelle Bachelet and abortion rights advocates.

The Senate narrowly passed a bill on Wednesday that would legalize abortion when a woman’s life is in danger, when a fetus is unviable or when a pregnancy results from rape.

On Thursday, the lower chamber - which passed an earlier version of the bill over a year ago - was expected to approve the modifications made by the Senate.

That effort failed when one of the more conservative lawmakers in Bachelet’s center-left coalition abstained. Other lawmakers were on vacation, leaving the government one vote short of the 67 needed for passage.

Chile is one of only a handful of countries where abortion is illegal without exception. The ban was put in place during the closing days of Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship. Bachelet pledged reform when she took office for a second time in 2014.

Although Chile is one of Latin America’s more socially conservative countries and the Roman Catholic Church retains significant influence, opinion polls show about 70 percent of Chileans favor easing the abortion ban.

The bill will now go through a messy reconciliation process that could take weeks. Abortion rights advocates fear the final version may pass after a change in the composition of Chile’s Constitutional Court scheduled for late August, which is expected to make it more conservative.

That change could be critical, as the conservative opposition has pledged to challenge the abortion bill in the court.

“History could have been changed. We just needed one vote to avoid what happened,” center-left lawmaker Marco Antonio Nunez said in televised remarks.

Reporting by Antonio de la Jara; Writing by Gram Slattery; Editing by Peter Cooney