Earlier this year, the Argentinian President had promised to send an abortion bill to Congress. Now, despite the pandemic and opposition from religious sectors, pro-choice activists want him to follow up on his pledge to legalise abortion.
In 2014 Belen, a woman in her late 20s in northern Argentina’s Tucumán, went to hospital severely haemorrhaging. She was later sentenced to eight years in prison, after a court said she had an abortion. But Belén always insisted her innocence, saying she had suffered a miscarriage. The initial court ruling was later overturned. After a two year jail sentence, Belen was freed.
The latest available data for 2016 found that over 39,000 females like Belén were admitted to public hospitals due to health complications, resulting from abortions or miscarriages - with Human Rights Watch (HRW) describing the figures for illegal abortions likely to be higher.
Rights groups say Belen's case reflected part of the wider social injustice and stigmatisation that women in Argentina face.
Abortion remains a divisive topic in the predominantly Catholic country and like Belen, it can result in prison sentences for both pregnant women and doctors.
As such, Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez’s campaign pledge during elections had been to legalise abortion in Argentina.
“A state should protect citizens in general and women in particular. And in the 21st Century, every society needs to respect the individual choice of its members to decide freely about their bodies,” he told his first annual address in Congress. “Abortion happens, it's a fact.”
But abortion remains illegal in the country and is only permissible when there is a risk to the mother’s life, when a foetus is deformed or rape has occurred.
The Argentine government estimates that there are around 350,000 illegal abortions per year. But rights groups estimate figures could be closer to 500,000 representing an estimated 40 percent of all pregnancies.
Earlier this year, it appeared that Argentina was once again set to debate the possible legalisation of abortion - with the move coming two years after the rejection of a proposed bill in the Senate after clearing the lower house.
In early March, Fernández vowed to submit a bill to ensure the voluntary, legal and safe interruption of pregnancy for all women - within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.
But shortly after this, Argentina recorded their first case of Covid-19 and entered into a strict lockdown which is still in place until November 8 - despite some reopening albeit with restrictions.
Pro-Choice in Argentina
Now pro-choice activists want Fernández to deliver on his pledge.
“The prohibition of abortion and the lack of access to safe, quality and free procedures constitute a violation of human rights,” said 30 year old student and activist Carla Vicario who has been campaigning for around six years. “We fervently believe that abortion is a right and that we are the owners of our bodies and the deciders of whether or not to become mothers.”
Carla is a member of ‘La Malona,’ a feminist collective formed in 2010 in Mendoza and ‘Territorias’ - another feminist collective based over 100km south of the region’s capital. Both groups form part of the wider 'National Campaign for the right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion.’
In Argentina, the pandemic has complicated access to hospitals for patients suffering from non-Covid-19 related issues and has exposed pre-existing underlying healthcare issues.
In Mendoza, Carla says abortions are now being performed outside of the hospital with the pandemic creating “obstacles”.
“There have been many delays in the interruption processes,” she told TRT World.
In April, the national government had to issue a directive reminding the 23 provinces that access to abortion is an “essential service.”
Carla says that usually, females in Argentina seeking legal interruptions of their pregnancies, turn to the national reproductive healthcare service who make referrals to nearby hospitals. They then conduct checks on the patient and often provide ‘Misoprostol’, a medication used in early-term abortion.
But Carla says different provinces have different laws for this medication. “In Mendoza the situation is even more complex, as Misoprostol is not available over the counter, so if you cannot enter the hospital (to get it) and you cannot get this drug in pharmacies then women are more exposed to the black market.”
Carla says this is why these groups are seeking to provide care and support to those facing such issues. She says often, there is a lack of clear information, resulting in pregnant females desperately turning to “unsafe and risky practices for their health.”
“(In Argentina) we have a clandestine market with access to abortion, where it costs a lot of money and where women who have the resources pay for it. On the other hand we have a high level of social vulnerability due to abortions in unsafe conditions, ” explained Dr Gabriela Irrazábal, a sociologist and researcher with the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) - an Argentine governmental agency.
“Put simply, those who have resources can access it and those who do not face unsafe conditions,” Irrazabal told TRT World.
Irrazabal says many women seeking access to legal abortion, face significant obstacles, impacting both their physical and emotional wellbeing.
Rights groups say many face stigmatisation and delays, from conscientious objections by health professionals, to arbitrary hurdles being imposed such as summoning police or court reports - to criminal complaints being filed against them.
Carla says it leads to a “fear of criminalisation” and is keen to combat it. “As activists we accompany each female, we give answers and support, to guarantee their wishes. We see ourselves with this responsibility from the moment they contact us.”
“What we carry out is a feminist accompaniment for pregnant females who decide to interrupt their pregnancy. Currently this means informing them about access to ILE (Legal Interruption of Pregnancy), possible health workers and part of the Network of professionals for the right to decide (Campaign Members), who seek to create a pathway to interrupt (pregnancy),” she said.
At 28 years of age, Johanna decided to pursue a legal interruption of her pregnancy.“I had access to information and I knew that there were networks and organisations that accompanied pregnant women deciding to interrupt an unwanted pregnancy.”
“I felt that I was not alone,” said Johanna.
She was accompanied by ‘La Malona,’ Carla's feminist collective who helped Johanna with “care before, during and after abortion” and offered her counselling.
But Johanna says “errors” made by a gynaecologist’s recommendation in regards to her pregnancy interruption, resulted in an “unnecessary curettage” - a medical procedure to remove tissue or growths in the wall of the uterus
Nevertheless, she says the collective helped to create a safe environment.“My home abortion was my own decision, as ever accompanied by my friends. I was never afraid. I knew that doing it with pills was the safest method.”
Despite the issue, Johanna says she felt secure.“I don't think I was afraid either because I was with my friends. And between film songs and breaths everything was very bearable. That was my experience, I can't find another word other than ‘accompaniment.’”
The Pro-Life Pushback
But in the home country of Pope Francis there remains strong opposition from religious and conservative sectors who argue legalisation will push more women into having unwanted abortions.
“Frente Joven is openly pro-life. We stand in defence of life which is a step towards the defence and the construction of a more dignified society,” said Guadalupe Batallán - a student and pro-life activist in her early twenties with the youth organisation.
At mobilisations across Argentina, activists like Guadalupe have adopted blue handkerchiefs, symbolising their pro-life stance.
Guadalupe says she comes from a household which stands against abortion. “That’s how I was brought up in my home. My mum ended up pregnant at 15 years old. It was the opposite of what normally happens. She was a middle class girl and the daughter of university teachers.”
Like Guadalupe’s mother, nearly seven out of 10 pregnancies of under 19-year-olds in Argentina are unintended.“My mother decided to be the first person in the family not to abort her child. She overcame many difficulties.”
Guadalupe's older sister is now in her early 30s and she believes “it was always very clear to me that there is a reason to fight for life and it was a lie that it wasn’t a person.”
Prior to the strict lockdown alongside her studies, Guadalupe regularly appeared on national television debates and helped the organisation to run outreach programs for pregnant women and mothers from low-socio economic backgrounds - providing assistance with resources like medicines, psychology and nutritional information.
Since lockdown, Guadalupe has been keeping up her activism on social media, regularly posting on Instagram.
But there are also other Catholic and Evangelical sectors pushing back.
According to Irrazabal, in Argentina those of a religious persuasion working in the scientific field can impede abortion becoming fully legalised. “There are associations of Christian, Catholics and religious medics, who are also going to protest against this”.
“Specialists were summoned in the last debate in Congress. Half of the specialists were against the legalisation of abortion, many of whom were doctors, lawyers and health professionals,” according to Irrazabal.
The politician’s stance
In 2018, senators from conservative provinces came under strong pressure to oppose the proposed bill.
Irrazabal says her previous research interviewing politicians with a colleague revealed there was a different stance between their professional and personal views. “Many personally agreed with legalisation - but not on a social level in terms of voting to legalise it, believing that society wasn’t prepared for it.”
Grassroots activism across Latin America
Since 2015, a feminist social movement, ‘Ni Una Menos’ (Not one less) has been mobilising across Latin America to advance women’s rights, decrying violence, inequality and impunity against women - as well as helping to raise awareness of different issues women face.
Historically, Irrazábal says, ‘social mobilisations’ taking place from around 1984 onwards have been helping to advance women’s rights across Argentina, notably with issues such as divorce which eventually became fully legal in 1987.
Social movements like The National Women’s Summit (ENM) have helped to pave the way today for ‘Ni Una Menos’.
Due to this grassroots activism, Carla believes abortion has now become fully cemented in public consciousness. “After so many years in the dark, thanks to the arduous feminist struggle that has made everything possible to install a discussion not only in society, but in parliament.”
“‘The green wave’ has been the result of years and years of activism by the feminist movement,” she added.
Green is the colour of Argentina’s pro-choice campaign, with many activists often donning green handkerchiefs during mobilisations.
Wider implications - shifting abortion laws across the globe and region
In the last 60 years, over 30 countries across the globe have adopted their legalisation to allow for greater access to abortion.
In Latin America, only Cuba, Guyana, Mexico City and Uruguay permit early-term abortion.
In Argentina, in recent years, the abortion debate has shifted publicly from a moral issue to a public health one, and some suggest there could be a wider impact across the region.
“Argentina plays a fundamental role in an international context, as it’s one of the first countries which has taken on abortion and was able to reject it,” said Guadalupe.“Neighbouring countries are always looking at Argentina, so what happens here could happen in other countries within the region.”
But for Carla, the core issue is about tackling unequal social structure whereby “women die as a result of unsafe abortions. Most of these women are young and impoverished.”
In 2007, 20 year old Ana María Acevedo, a housemaid who already had 3 children requested an abortion to undergo chemotherapy treatment. But she was denied it, with the hospital wishing to preserve both lives - as her case fell into a legal grey area. Ana’s baby was delivered by caesarean section six months into the pregnancy, but it died within 24 hours. Ana herself died a fortnight later.
Now Argentina is not only dealing with the effects of the pandemic but a pre-existing deep economic recession hitting the country hard - as well as IMF negotiations.
“We do not have certainties until the end, as the political situation is blurred by the context (pandemic) and by the interests of the politicians,” said Carla.
Local reports say the government is working to send an abortion bill to Congress by the end of the year.
“We have to further what we were doing before,” said Guadalupe. With any new proposed bill like in 2018, she says pro-life campaigners will once again seek to influence legislators in the provinces, work alongside the church and campaign online.
However, Carla and her feminist collectives are determined to “fight for our rights, against a patriarchal system,” hoping Fernández upholds his pledge to legalise and decriminalise abortion to safeguard the lives of women across Argentina.