The Health Ministry has published new guidelines for non-punishable abortions in Argentina, moving to guarantee access for those seeking to end pregnancies that are a result of rape or endanger the mother’s life.
The new protocol, published in the Official Gazette just three days after Alberto Fernández was sworn-in as president, is a move to guarantee access for those who meet the conditions.
“The protocol will be used as a guide, especially in cases where the law clearly allows for the interruption of pregnancies,” Health Minister Ginés González García told a press conference.
The new protocol is similar to the one proposed by former health secretary Adolfo Rubinstein last month that would’ve expanded access to pregnant teens. Published without prior approval from his superiors, the Radical lawmaker’s guidelines were ultimately revoked by then-president Mauricio Macri in the closing days of his administration and prompted the minister’s resignation.
Abortion has been illegal in Argentina since 1921, but changes to the Penal Code in 2015 authorised the procedure when pregnancy is caused by rape or poses a serious threat to the health of the woman involved. However, the rule has been poorly implemented, abortion activists say.
According to advocates, hospitals exercise sizeable freedom in deciding what qualifies as a “legal abortion” and setting arbitrary requirements to obtain the procedure. Many women are unable to access the procedure even in cases where it’s sanctioned by law, especially in the country’s more religious northern provinces.
Doctors who provide it in such cases also continue to face threats from abortion’s political opponents and the threat of incarceration under an Argentine law that permits jail time for providing or seeking an abortion.
Now, thanks to the new protocol, women seeking a legal abortion will encounter a standardised procedure in hospitals.
The woman needs only to give her “informed consent” and sign a document affirming her situation qualifies under one of the legal exceptions. No more than 10 days can pass between the mother’s first hospital visit and the procedure itself.
‘AS A GUIDE’
The new protocol put forth by González García serves “as a guide” for medical teams, delineating how hospitals should receive, advise and treat a mother seeking a legal abortion in the safest way conditions. It also includes specifications in cases involving minors.
Women can choose to receive abortion through an oral tablet administered by the doctor or through a surgical procedure.
The protocol also emphasises the responsibility of doctors to "fulfill their responsibility to abortion in the Argentine legal framework" and to provide a public health service to patients and communities.
It also protects healthcare professionals from the "intimidation" reportedly received from what González García described as "far right organisations" and "provincial governments.”
The decision was celebrated by Rubinstein, who said he was “very content” that the protocol had been re-implemented and that it finally mandated “compliance with the law.”
Under its new leadership, the Health Ministry also advised that conscientious objection "will not be considered an institutional excuse to not comply with the law." In other words, hospitals must have someone available and able to administer an abortion.
Argentina’s deeply Roman Catholic roots have long influenced its social policies. Only hours after González García published the new guidelines,, Alberto Bochatey, a bishop in La Plata, called the development “unsurprising,” attributing the Fernandez administration “pro-abortion” and unwilling to “enter a discussion about the law.”
“It’s as if they’ve already created legal abortion in Argentina,” Bochatey said.
He accused the new government of avoiding “democratic debate.”
“The Argentine people aren’t in favour of legal abortion, as was shown in the democratic demonstration in Congress in 2018,” he added, referring to the Senate’s rejection of a law approved by the Chamber of Deputies that would’ve legalised abortion up until the first 14 weeks.
The notice in the Official Gazette cited the “best scientific evidence available,” and González García said the provisions are based on “international recommendations” for the safest abortions. It emphasises the importance of "rapid access" and the "highest levels of attention.”
The Ministry of Health estimates there 350,000 illegal abortions annually in Argentina, though international human rights groups believe that’s too low. Improperly executed abortions are a primary driver of maternal death in Argentina. In 2017, it accounted for nearly 15 percent of such fatalities, according to the Official Gazette .
The ferocity around the abortion debate in Argentina has grown since the 2018 measure to decriminalise and legalise the procedure failed in Congress. Alberto Fernández promised to make a similar resolution a priority in his new government.
However, he didn't mention it in his inauguration speech on Tuesday.