Chile promotes civil union law for gay couples

A couple takes a selfie during the celebration of the approval of the first law that would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions in Santiago on January 28, 2015 (AFP Photo/Vladimir Rodas)

Santiago (AFP) - The Chilean government launched a campaign Tuesday to promote a new civil union law that will go into effect Thursday and apply to both heterosexual and homosexual couples.

The law, long-sought by advocacy groups, is seen as a first step towards allowing gay marriage in the heavily Catholic country.

"As Chile has changed, and for the better... this was unthinkable a few years ago," said government spokesman Marcelo Diaz in launching the new promotional campaign, "A Law For All Families."

The new law enables unmarried heterosexual or homosexual couples living under the same roof to co-own property, receive inheritance and pension benefits, and make medical decisions.

And if a child's biological parent becomes no longer able to care for them, custody decisions will give priority to that parent's civil union partner, a provision demanded by gay rights organizations.

According to government figures, nearly 1,600 couples have registered so far under the civil union law.

The government said a special plan would be in place to register civil unions on Thursday, despite an unrelated strike by civil servants.

Chile was one of the last countries to legalize divorce, in 2004, and does not allow abortion under any circumstances.