One-third of maternal deaths in Argentina are a result of clandestine abortions. The government estimates that between 370,000 and 522,000 abortions are performed every year, most of them illegal. As pro-choice campaigners prepare to take the streets again, calls are rising once again for free, legal and safe procedures.
Activists from the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion (Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal Seguro y Gratuito) are preparing their emblematic emerald green bandanas for next week’s pañuelazo on February 19, when they will assemble before the National Congress building to call once more for the legalisation of abortion in Argentina.
Falling in line with a rich history of feminist activism and protest, the Campaign’s demonstration on Monday is an attempt to steer the narrative of abortion toward something that is not considered shameful. Decriminalisation is the ultimate aim.
While abortion remains illegal with few exceptions in Argentina, the abortion rate is exponentially higher than in countries in which the procedure is legal. In addition, complications from unsafe, clandestine abortions account for one-third of total maternal deaths in Argentina, making it the leading cause of maternal death in 17 of the country’s 24 provinces, according to Amnesty International’s 2017 Human Rights Agenda for Argentina.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
The most comprehensive statistics from the Ministry of Health, dating from 2009, puts the number of abortions carried out per year at between 370,000 and 522,000, in a country of 43.9 million people. The number, however, is inaccurate, as it is based on hospitalisations from abortions – both spontaneous and intentional – and does not account for clandestine abortions.
For perspective: the United States, a country with a population of 323 million and legal abortion, sees approximately 926,000 abortions annually.
Abortion has been illegal since the adoption of Argentina’s Criminal Code in the 1880s, and 1922 saw the addition of exceptions by which abortion is not to be punished. Article 86 of the Criminal Code states that “abortion practiced by a licensed physician with the consent of the woman involved is not punishable by law if: a) the abortion was performed because the woman’s life or health was in danger and if this danger cannot be avoided by other means; b) if the pregnancy is the result of rape, or sexual intercourse with a woman incapable of giving her consent due to her mental health.”
During the last military dictatorship (1976-1983), the restrictions on abortion were tightened, with abortion only allowed if the person had been raped and they were mentally disabled, or if the pregnancy posed a “grave” threat to the person’s health or life. The rules returned to their 1922 version once the dictatorship ended.
A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2012 changed things. In the court’s judgement, it was established that any instance of rape was grounds for seeking out an abortion, not only in the specific case of mentally disabled women, and that judicial authorisation is not necessary for an abortion. Today, the only documentation necessary when someone seeks out an abortion following rape or abuse is a signed affidavit stating their case. However, the law still criminalises abortion outside of those exceptions, and women who successfully selfinduce an abortion are subject to jail time if found guilty.
Issues with this particular part of the penal code were most recently seen in the case of ‘Belén,’ a 27-year old from Tucumán who arrived to a hospital with abdominal pains and was said to have had a spontaneous abortion. Hospital staff later accused her of disposing of the foetus in one of the hospital’s washrooms.
The hospital’s staff reported this to police, violating Belén’s rights as a patient, and as a result the woman spent nearly three years in prison on charges of aggravated murder. Her situation quickly became a rallying call for pro-choice campaigners and in 2017, she was exonerated after the Tucumán Supreme Court ruled in her favour, releasing her and clearing her of any wrongdoing.
CALL TO ACTION
Part of what helped alert people to Belén’s predicament was a growing swell of feminist activism in Argentina. The Ni Una Menos campaign was quick to embrace her cause, as was the National Campaign for the Right to a Safe, Legal, and Free Abortion.
María Alicia Gutierrez, a sociologist, professor and researcher at the University of Buenos Aires, is an organiser for the the Campaign, which describes itself as “a broad and diverse national alliance that the history of struggles that have progressed in our country” in its promotional material.
The Campaign, Gutierrez explained to the Times, was established in 2005 and sees itself as continuing the legacy of long and hard-fought feminist battles in Argentina, has three fundamental pillars: sexual education and the right to decide, contraceptives to prevent abortions being necessary, and legal abortion to prevent deaths. Allied with 500 other organisations and networks in order to advocate for abortion rights across Argentina, the Campaign boasts activists and supporters from various backgrounds including healthcare professionals.
Celeste MacDougall is a history teacher who works with the Campaign and the Network of Teachers for Comprehensive Sexual Education, in which teachers across disciplines are trained to teach sexual education to students. The network believes that comprehensive sexual education helps advance a “social decriminalisation” of abortion, taking it out of the shadows and removing shame from the procedure, she explained.
“Those who are anti-choice maintain that women end up traumatised after having an abortion. We say that what traumatises them ... in reality is the context of illegality,” MacDougall says.
The campaign has also forayed into the legislative arena, where they have presented six bills proposing abortion legalisation to the national Congress with signatures of legislators across party lines. But none of the bills were addressed, and the Campaign is gearing up to potentially present another bill this upcoming legislative session.
“Lobbying is one of our strategies, but it’s not the only one,” Gutiérrez says.
Still, there is significant resistance to reform, particularly from the powerful Catholic Church – no surprise, given Argentina’s overwhelmingly Catholic population.
At the forefront of the Campaign’s activism is the demand for free, safe and legal access to abortion. Despite the procedure being mostly illegal, the demand for abortion services does not appear to be diminishing. However, some healthcare professionals seek to find ways around the legal blocks.
Broad interpretations of the abortion statute’s definition of “health,” for example, allows providers to expand the circumstances under which they offer abortions to patients. For some, this can mean patients find a vital, safer route to the procedure, as they are no longer spurned from clinics for failing to strictly align with one of the two exemptions.
Section A of Article 86 is where physicians and pregnant people alike find a ‘grey area’ for legal abortions. Many medical professionals opt for the World Health Organisation’s broad definition of health, understood to be the “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
This ambiguity allows medical professionals to accept a wide array of reasons for which a person might want to seek out an abortion and to categorise it more broadly as a matter of “health.”
And despite the illegality, abortions are relatively easy to come by in Argentina. But, for the most part, it’s a matter of knowing the right people and having money to spend on either a costly abortion procedure or expensive medicinal abortion pills.
“What happens is that middle and upper-class people who have resources, both material resources and symbolic resources, are able to access abortions and do it because it’s not a risky procedure. They do it under safe conditions,” Gutiérrez says.
Gutiérrez adds that it’s women in the ‘popular sector’ and the interior of the country who make up the most vulnerable populations. They are the ones who must often resort to unsafe, backstreet abortions due to lack of access to the word-of-mouth networks and the funds required for a safe abortion in a private, clandestine clinics.
Without a prescription, the cost of misoprostol (medication commonly used to cause an abortion) bought in a pharmacy doubles or triples, and that is if a pharmacy chooses to even offer it without a prescription. Often, experts say, people will sell loose misoprostol pills to people who are desperate for the medication, via word of mouth or online pages, with some paying as much as 800 Argentine pesos – US$40 – for a single pill when a full regimen consists of 12 pills. The price of an unsafe, clandestine abortion averages 10,000 pesos, around US$500.
“IT’S ALWAYS A GAMBLE”
Gutiérrez attributes the ease of access to abortions, as well as the decrease of deaths attributed to clandestine abortions, partly to the use of misoprostol for medication abortions. But what happens when health systems across the country seldom abide by the same expectations?
Analia Bruno, Angeles Tessio, and Leticia Castellaro are part of the Network of Professionals for the Right to Decide, a cross-profession collective of people that advocate for and support people seeking out abortions. Bruno, Tessio, and Castellaro are part of the staff at Center for Health and Community Action (CeSAC) No. 32 in Nueva Pompeya; Bruno and Tessio are general medics, Castellaro is a social worker. All of them agree that things must change.
Castellaro estimates that of the 45 public centros de salud in the City, just over half offer misoprostol to its patients seeking to end their pregnancies, most because they cannot legally offer aspiration abortions or any other sort of abortion pill. And even when they can legally carry misoprostol, that doesn’t always mean they’ll have it available.
“It’s always a gamble. We ask for a certain amount of pills and they send us half, or one-fourth of the amount we asked for, and then send the remainder little by little,” Bruno says.
There are other problems too: accessing the centros is another journey in and of itself. The staff at CeSAC No. 32 have no geographic restrictions as to who they can serve, and say women sometimes travel for over two hours just to be seen or to have a consultation. But even in such situations, some are turned away by the centros de salud, who help those closest to hand.
“You cross the [Avenida] General Paz and the centros don’t have any [misoprostol]. They have it exclusively for women that, on top of meeting certain requirements, are residents of that specific area,” Tessio says.
For the Campaign, who have sufered blows to their goal via budget cuts to sexual education programmes and lowered access to contraceptives, the work continues.
“It keeps being the work of an ant,” Gutiérrez says. “But the current struggle for abortion rights is the same and will not change.”
On Monday, they will continue their struggle.
For more information on the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion, visit www. abortolegal.com.ar