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Campaign Advocates for Legalization of Abortion in Argentina

By Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente
Global Press Institute

With two laws passed this year giving citizens more control over legal decisions about their bodies, a campaign is advocating for legal, safe and free abortion in Argentina in order to reduce the number of women who die in clandestine clinics. Still, advocates aren’t confident that the Argentine National Congress will pass the bill this year despite the fact that a majority of Argentines disapprove of penalizing a woman for procuring an abortion.

(Photo: M. Gevirtz)

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – Analía, 32, obtained a clandestine abortion five years ago in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital. She declined to publish her last name because abortion is illegal in Argentina, under most circumstances.

A short woman with short brown hair, Analía talks without smiling.

“Look, I began a relationship with a man, you know,” she says. “We went out for eight months. We ended when I got pregnant, rather, when we got pregnant. I didn’t make the baby alone, but he left me alone with the matter. After, he informed me that he was married. Nothing to do. He didn’t want to take reponsibility.”

She says all he offered to do was to pay for the abortion.

“He told me: ‘Don’t come to me with your problems,’” she says. “‘Tell me how much money you need and take care of it yourself.’ It hurt me. I was in love, and I thought that we had a solid relationship.”

Analía says that she decided to have an abortion because she couldn’t afford to raise the child alone.

“I don’t have a high-level job,” says Analía, who works as an administrative employee at a local hospital. “I am an employee. I have never worked for much more than minimum wage. I don’t have higher studies. If I did have the baby, I was going to need economic, family and my partner’s support. I wasn’t capable of facing my family or anybody. I felt very alone.”

Between speaking, Analía becomes serious, staring at one point on the floor with her eyes clear and open. Her voice then drops to a whisper as she begins to talk about the clandestine procedure.

“I was six weeks [pregnant] more or less,” she says.

She found the doctor who performed the abortion through a contact at the hospital where she works.

“There is always someone who knows where you can go,” she says, her voice as thin as she is. “I thought that I was going to die.”

She says the “clinic” was a normal house. One of the rooms contained basic medical supplies.

“There, they did a suction on me,” she says. “It was a Sunday afternoon. It was a day with sun, but I saw everything gloomy.”

She says that the father of the baby dropped her off but didn’t accompany her inside for the procedure.

“He dropped me off there, and he left,” she says. “We never talked again.”

With this experience still a vivid memory, Analía is one of many supporters here of a bill asking for legal, safe and free abortion in Argentina through the Proyecto de Ley de Interrupción Voluntaria del Embarazo.

Analía recently attended a festival in support of the bill, the Festival Itinerante por el Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito, held during the month of May at the city’s Centro de la Cooperación. On the day of the event, she arrived early and sat on the stairs outside, waiting for the doors to open.

Local initiatives, like the festival, are generating awareness about a bill that would legalize abortion for all women in Argentina. Advocates say the law would reduce maternal mortality, while opponents are speaking out on behalf of the fetus’ rights. Advocates say they are encouraged by two laws passed by the Argentine National Congress this year that give people more control over their bodies.

Some 500,000 illegal abortions take place in Argentina annually, according to the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito, the campaign that has united various organizations in support of the pending bill.

In Argentina, 40 percent of pregnancies don’t come to term, many ending voluntarily in clandestine clinics.

Abortion is the principal cause of maternal mortality in Argentina, accounting for 30 percent of maternal deaths, according to the campaign. In many cases, neither health complications nor deaths are reported to the authorities after a clandestine abortion. For every woman that seeks help from a doctor after obtaining one, seven others with complications stay quiet and don’t seek health services.

Abortion is illegal in Argentina. But the Supreme Court here ruled in March 2012 that any woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape may obtain an abortion. Before this, courts approved abortions on a case-by-case basis, mostly for victims who were mentally disabled. Abortions are also allowed if the pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life.

Otherwise, abortion carries a prison sentence between one and 15 years for the doctor, delivery assistant, pharmacist or others involved in administering it and one to four years for the woman who obtained it.

But nearly 57 percent of Argentines disagree with penalizing a woman who procures an abortion, according to a 2010 survey of 1,400 adults over the age of 18 conducted by Ibarómetro, a private market research firm.

The bill that aims to redefine the abortion landscape was presented to the Argentine National Congress in 2008 but lost its status because it was not addressed, according to the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito. In March 2010, the campaign presented the document again with the signatures of more than 30 deputies. Debate began in Congress at the end of 2011, but the bill has still not advanced.

In May 2012, the national Senate approved two laws related to the right to decide about one’s own life and body: the death with dignity law and the gender identity law. The first permits terminally ill patients to refuse extreme medical treatments. The second enables each person to legally choose their sex, regardless of the sex assigned at birth.

El Proyecto de Ley de Interrupción Voluntaria del Embarazo declares that every woman has the right to decide whether to have an abortion during the first 12 weeks of her pregnancy. It also establishes a woman’s right to access an abortion that is legal, safe and free. At the same time it proposes psychological counseling for women before, during and after the abortion.

Analía says initiatives like the festival are necessary to raise awareness about the bill and about a reality that many women face but, until now, has remained in the dark.

“The activities of the festival make the people able to know and to have an informed position in respect to [abortion],” Analía says. “It doesn’t try to favor abortion, but to legalize its practice, to end the isolation of women.”

With half a million women obtaining abortions annually regardless of the law, legalization would make sure they are safe.

“Clandestine abortion is a risk to the health of women,” Analía says.

But not everyone agrees. Hernán de Antoni, a 21-year-old arts student, equates abortion with murder.

“The only owner of life is God, and only he can decide how and when he sends a child to the world,” De Antoni says. “There is no legal reason to murder an innocent child who doesn’t have to pay for the mistakes or interests of his or her parents.”

De Antoni and his girlfriend, also 21, together instill these values in children in a youth group they teach in the parish of San José Obrero in Buenos Aires province.

Noor Jiménez Abraham, a member of Colectivo Elsa Torres, one of the main organizations that coordinated the festival, says that the event encouraged people to decide about the issue of abortion for themselves.

“It aims to introduce the topic in society so that people can develop their ideas through reasonable information, without the vices of messages impregnated by moral or religious rules, which are worthy of consideration, but should be decided by each individual,” says Jiménez Abraham, who is also a journalist and professor at Universidad del Salvador in the city.

Federico Mazaffra, a psychologist and member of Colectivo de Varones Antipatriarcales, another organization that coordinated the festival, says that every activity that promotes the topic of abortion as a matter of society and not just of women is fundamental to understanding the issue.

Mazaffra adds that the abortion discussion must also involve men. Colectivo de Varones Antipatriarcales has conducted talks and workshops on abortion and men’s reproductive rights in the cities of Buenos Aires, La Plata and Mendoza.

“Men should involve ourselves in the demand for the right to legal, safe and free abortion,” he says. “It is not only a fight of the women for the right to decide about their bodies, but it’s also a fight of the complete society so that we end the practices that reproduce social inequality.”

But those advocating for this bill don’t offer a unified sense of whether the current political environment will allow it to pass this year. Some say that the pair of laws passed in May show a trend toward the woman’s right to choose, while others say that those in opposition will win on this one in the interest of maintaining the balance of power.

Jiménez Abraham says that the law’s passing this year seems daunting. At the same time, he says that the other two laws open the debate of ownership of one’s body to increased citizen participation.

“I believe that every law that is in favor of the free choice of people in respect to their body, intimacy or identity is going to result in an opening in the social critique,” he says, “thus establishing a more conducive environment for the moment in talking about the law for a legal, safe and free abortion.”

María Eugenia Bengolea, representative of Apostasía Colectiva, another movement that was a driving force behind the festival, says that the major impediment to the bill is the Catholic Church.

“The Church has the power of pressure because, officially, Argentina is a Catholic country and there are millions of people listed as such in their registries,” she says. “The representation of the Church is only on paper. Therefore, it should abstain from participating in the debate.”

Apostasía Colectiva calls on citizens to publicly and officially renounce their Catholic faith. For Bengolea, this is part of the fight for reproductive rights, which include legal, safe and free abortion.

“For the Catholic Church, everyone baptized is Catholic, agrees with its doctrines and therefore uses the very high number of the baptized, because baptism became a custom, in order to impose its points of view on the legislation and to obtain privileges.”

In this sense, Bengolea says that it will be difficult to pass the law this year.

“I don’t believe that the law will pass this year,” she says. “I understand it as a negotiation between the church and the state: the laws of dignified death and gender identity in exchange for the abortion law.”

The ecclesiastical hierarchy opposes the bill as did the Supreme Court decision earlier this year, declaring both an attack on life and a crime against the baby to be born. Archbishop of La Plata Héctor Aguer was quoted earlier this year calling the ruling a “painful decision.”

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president of the country, has also repeated that she is against abortion. But the deputies who signed for the reactivation of the bill are for the most part from the party to which she belongs, Frente para la Victoria.

But without the president’s support, Analía doesn’t think that the bill will pass this year.

“I don’t believe that the law will pass this year,” she says. “That is not to say that we don’t have to keep fighting, although we have the most powerful woman in the country against it.”

Jiménez Abraham underlines the power of the organization of groups and advocates in the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito.

“We know that we have a very difficult path,” he says. “We have the conviction to be fighting in favor of social justice and for the end of inequalities in access to the health and enjoyment of reproductive rights. Aborting is not equal according to educational level, money, the resilience of women.”

He says that the topic of abortion is complex and demands a comprehensive approach on the part of society.

“That’s why the slogan of our mobilization proposes a holistic approach regarding sexuality and maternity: sexual education in order to decide, contraceptives in order to not abort, legal abortion in order to not die,” he says.

Analía also charges society with forcing women to seek abortions in clandestine clinics.

“To the woman who becomes pregnant, they say that she is the only one responsible for her maternity,” Analía says. “But they criminalize her if she decides for herself. It is perverse and sad. They leave the woman alone, without options. The men wash their hands, and the society permits it. After, the only one guilty is me for aborting.”

But she says this is neither accurate nor just.

“I am not a criminal,” she says. “No woman who aborts is one. The woman who is going to go into a clandestine clinic is one who, like me, is poor. She doesn’t have the money to pay for a safe and confidential abortion.”

The story was originally published by Global Press Institute. (c) Global Press Institute 2012

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