March 23, 2017
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — Agustina waits nervously for the hospital to release her test results. Finally, an office door opens and a doctor confirms her fears: she is pregnant.
It’s not the news she was hoping for. While she considers her options, the doctor offers congratulations and tells her that she’s made an appointment for her with an obstetrician. Agustina tells her that that won’t be necessary because she doesn’t intend to have the baby. The doctor’s face turns serious. Limited exceptions exist, but generally abortion in Argentina is illegal.
Agustina, 27, says she had had an abortion once before, when she was 19. She could afford it then and was able to access a private clinic for the procedure. This time she couldn’t pay, so she went to Consejería Pre y Post Aborto de la Asamblea de Villa Urquiza, a neighborhood organization that provides workshops and counseling.
“When I arrived I met other girls who were in the same situation as me,” she says. “We couldn’t look each other in the eyes because of the shame we felt.”
In Argentina, between 360,000 and 500,000 women have abortions each year, and 100 die in the process, according to 2016 data from Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito, an organization leading the national campaign fights to legalize abortion in Argentina.
Civil organizations counsel women who wish to have an abortion so they can access the procedure without risking their lives, but the illegality and high cost of medication make their work difficult.
Activists working to legalize abortion say they believe public opinion in Argentina is becoming more favorable toward expanding the circumstances under which women can attain a legal abortion. They expect a bill to decriminalize abortions in the first 14 weeks of gestation to win approval in 2017. Introduced by 41 lawmakers, the bill is supported by 350 non-governmental organizations.
Human rights group Amnesty International says tens of thousands of women have been admitted to public hospitals for complications from clandestine abortions in Argentina. Of approximately 53,000 women admitted annually, about 15 percent were under the age of 20, while 50 percent were women between the ages of 20 and 29, the group says.
Those who perform abortions can face between one and four years in jail. Women who abort on their own or consent to have an abortion can receive a similar sentence. Exceptions exist: abortions are legal for cases of rape, risk to the mother’s health or when the pregnant woman has a mental disability.
Socorristas en Red, a network of organizations whose members include the center that counseled Agustina, accompanied and counseled 2,894 women who had an abortion in 2015.
“Every woman who comes here thinks her problem is personal, but in reality it’s also part of the social process,” explains María, a member of Consejería Pre y Post Aborto de la Asamblea de Villa Urquiza neighborhood counseling center, who asked that her full name not be used because of fear of prosecution.
The counseling center works to calm women, advise them about safe abortion methods and accompany them throughout the process. It answers their questions, provides information about symptoms and safety measures and advises on which health professionals they can trust.
At the end of the process, each woman completes a survey and is counseled on contraceptive methods. The information about each abortion is added to a database that is used to advise all women who go to the counseling center.
“Abortion is an issue on which there isn’t much written,” María says. “We build knowledge about the symptoms and the process. There’s a lot of criminalization and misinformation.”
Women who choose to abort often are stigmatized.
“At 19, when I had my first abortion, I was fired from my job,” recalls Agustina, who asks that her full name not be used. “My boss noticed that I’d had an abortion. She had seven children and was very religious. A month after the abortion they kicked me out.”
So this time, Agustina didn’t tell anyone. And she didn’t request time off for fear of losing her job again.
Favia, 22, who asked that her last name not be used as well, worried that she would be prosecuted if she told a doctor she intended to have an abortion.
“The fear was also of having to go to the hospital and seeing a doctor, fearful that legal action might be initiated or that I might have to lie,” she says. “I don’t know how I would’ve faced that situation.”
She only shared her decision with her partner.
“You worry about being judged, singled out. That’s why I can’t talk about it; I’m afraid to talk about it,” she says. “You don’t tell anyone, either that you’re pregnant or that you will get an abortion, because you will forever have to deal with their prejudice.”
Doctors who perform abortions within the limits of existing law say they are under pressure from their superiors to stop, according to Ana Paula Fagioli, a physician and member of the Red de Profesionales de la Salud por el Derecho a Decidir, a network of doctors aligned to support those choosing abortion.
“They tell us, ‘Stop prescribing misoprostol on municipality forms, don’t write in the woman’s clinical record,’” Fagioli says. “They want us to be clandestine. There are many colleagues who could guarantee the right to abortion but they don’t do it for fear of losing their jobs.”
Another obstacle is the cost of misoprostol, the drug that the World Health Organization recommends for safe abortions.
With a prescription, the drug costs between 800 and 1,500 Argentine pesos ($51 to $96). Without one, the price soars to 3,000 pesos ($193), says Nahuel Torcisi, a member of the national campaign for the right to abortion.
“The [economic] crisis is making it much more difficult to access medication,” Torcisi says. “Girls usually take up a collection in the neighborhood.”
In mid-2016, the national campaign organization offered a bill decriminalizing abortion for the sixth time, without success. Activists from that organization believe they have a better chance this year.
Torcisi says he has been campaigning to legalize abortion for 11 years.
“In my first two years we were attacked in the streets, we were insulted, we’ve even had our table with our brochures on it thrown at us,” he says. “Now we don’t see that reaction. I think raising awareness about the subject had a lot to do with it.”
Julia Martino, a member of the Comisión de Cabildeo de la Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito network, says that the current political climate in Congress will be more favorable to the bill.
“Society’s support is growing. We believe that this time we have more opportunities because there’s no majority in Congress, so it will have to be debated,” Martino explains.
However, Congressman Pablo Gabriel Tonelli, who opposes legislation that would expand legal abortions, says he does not believe Congress is ready to legalize the procedure.
“It’s a difficult subject in which even within the government there is no agreement,” he says. “But what I am certain is that there won’t be any momentum from the government to deal with this.”
He equates abortion with murder, saying, “I believe abortion is a homicide and I don’t think it can be done joyfully and with impunity.”
As for how to prevent women from dying in unsafe abortions, Tonelli advocates improving sex education. “It’s not that I don’t worry about deaths due to clandestine abortions, but I think the solution to that is education and not freedom to abort,” Tonelli says.
María, of the counseling center, Consejería Pre y Post Aborto, says counseling and care for those seeking abortion is the best way to prevent women from dying.
“The aid we provide isn’t just for a while, or until the law is approved,” she says. “It’s a path to a safe, legal and feminist abortion. We want women to feel empowered.”
For Torcisi, activist and counselor, allowing women to choose to terminate pregnancies is essential for progress.
“The law is going to allow for a bigger parameter [for legal abortion] so that women can decide the kind of life they want,” he says. “Oftentimes, what keeps them stuck is that abortion is illegal.”
Lourdes Medrano, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.