Argentina's Secret Killer - Illegal Abortion
The Argentine state has failed to protect maternal health for decades, but a new wave of women's organisations is finally offering Argentine women hope.
María T. was 36 when she fell pregnant for the fourth time, she knew her family couldn't afford another child and she feared her husband's reaction. "I knew straight away what I had to do, but back then I didn't know where to find it or how I could pay for it", said María, carefully tiptoeing round voicing that word - abortion.
Abortion remains a criminal offence in Argentina and the stigma attached means it's an issue shrouded in secrecy. At the same time, levels of abortion are high. With an estimated 500,000 abortions every year, Argentine law makes thousands of women criminals every day. Human Rights Watch calculated that in 2005, about 40 per cent of pregnancies in Argentina ended in abortion.
The clandestine nature of the act means that reliable statistics are hard to come by. However, the Argentine government itself estimates that 30 per cent of maternal deaths are caused by unsafe abortions, making it the biggest cause of maternal death in the country. This is three times bigger than the world average of 10 per cent.
While significant advances have been made, Argentina has a long way to go to reach its UN millennium target of reducing its maternal mortality ratio by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015. To have any significant effect on maternal death levels, the government must reform its contraceptive and sexual health services. The legalisation of abortion is at the very heart of this debate.
Illegal abortions in Argentina can cost anything from $3000 pesos (£452) to $10,000 pesos (£1,507), for an operation; and $300 pesos (£45) to $1500 pesos (£226), for the tablets misoprostol. Misoprostol is available to buy under prescription to prevent ulcers, but is most commonly used in Argentina for illegal abortions. Fearing a trip to her family doctor, María bought the tablets on the black market for a sum of cash worth more than a month's rent.
Argentine law prohibits abortion except when a woman's health is in danger or in cases of rape of a mentally disabled woman. Yet even in these cases, it is difficult to find doctors who will perform the operation and cases can be delayed for vital months. The few women who are legally entitled to an abortion are more often than not forced to risk their lives in back-street clinics.
"The justice system and the medical industry are dominated by conservative ideologies that oppose laws and public policies that offer sexual and reproductive rights to women", argues Marta Alanis, President of the Argentine branch of Catholics for the Right to Decide. In fact, the government is currently facing six lawsuits from various 'ultra catholic' pro-life groups who are trying to roll back legislation, created in 2003, giving access to the morning after pill, free contraception and sex education (under the National Programme of Sexual Health and Responsible Procreation).
CDD is one of three organisations which recently won a case, taken to the UN´s Human Rights Committee, against the Argentine government for failing to comply with its own abortion laws. The emblematic case of the ´Girl from Guernica' saw doctors and the government deny a legal abortion to a 19 year old rape victim with a mental age of 10. At almost 23 weeks, she eventually managed to have the operation in a private clinic, eight weeks after her first request. This was only possible with financial support from a women's organisation.
This case is symptomatic of the way women's sexual rights have been approached in Argentina for many years – the state fails to protect women, leaving civil society groups to fill in the gaps.
"Far too often politicians actively undermine the provision of pre and post abortion care, which are legal rights in Argentina", says helpline worker Luciana Sánchez. Luciana works for the "Abortion: more information, less risk" helpline, which was set up in 2009 by a group of volunteers to help women understand their rights to sexual heath services. The helpline also advises how to legally access misoprostol. "The very fact that 500,000 women per year in Argentina risk their lives by having illegal abortions is a sign that the law needs to change", she said.
The hotline and the CDD are just two of the three hundred organisations taking part in the 'National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion'. Launched in 2005, the campaign's slogan calls for "Sexual education to decide, contraception to avoid abortion and legal abortion to avoid death". The campaign is led almost entirely by civil society groups, and is bolstered by public support, where opinion polls reveal 60 per cent in favour of decriminalisation of abortion.
In addition to public support, political support for the National Campaign is at an all time high. Argentina's lower house held its first debate on the legalisation of abortion in March this year. The legislative proposal has already secured the signature of 50 ministers, following pressure from the National Campaign. "It's a historic event", said Marta Alanis of CDD, "Never before in all history has a legislative proposal entered the lower house with 50 signatures, normally they have only one or two".
Some names have been changed to protect identities