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Abortion in Argentina is Legal but Stigma and Weak Infrastructures Remain

Abortion in Argentina was legalized on January 14, 2021. This was considered a feat for women across the country because they could finally have free and legal access to safe abortion services. 

From 1983 to 2020, around 3,000 women have died as a result of getting an abortion in secret. It is also estimated that around 500,000 abortions are done in secret and through unsafe procedures every year. Because of this, it remains one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in the country.

Before the passage of the most recent law, abortion in Argentina could only be done legally if the woman was raped or if the pregnancy would have negative health consequences for the mother.

However, one year later, much needs to be done to change the mentality and practices that have been prevalent for so long. The infrastructure for such services should still be made more conducive for women to practice this right. 

Apart from this, sex and reproductive health education needs to be promoted, especially in small villages. Some individuals automatically associate an ultrasound with pregnancy. It is not uncommon to go for an ultrasound and then be congratulated by neighbors on the woman’s assumed pregnancy.

The Green Handkerchief Movement

The Green Handkerchief Movement. Women celebrating the passage of the law.

The green handkerchief has served as “a symbol of freedom and citizenship” for women across Argentina. 

Those in support of the legalization of abortion in Argentina argue that women need to have authority over their own body, which includes the right to decide the termination of their pregnancy. Women can not be truly free if they are unable to control their own reproductive lives. 

Feminists also claim that the right to practice legal abortion in Argentina is tied to their other rights as citizens. This movement is not just about abortion. Rather, it also involves going against violence done to women and the discrimination experienced by women.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a dangerous environment for some women at home. There have been increases in cases of domestic violence and murders against women. Restrictions on going out increase the time of women at home, which is where their abusers also reside. Effective implementation of the law is needed now more than ever.

Opposition to the Legalization of Abortion

Protests Against the Abortion Law

Many groups, mostly those in the religious sector, are still going against abortion. They call on doctors to not perform abortion despite its legalization as this will create an unacceptable norm in society. Those who refuse to conduct abortion will be given support if cases are filed against them. 

They argue that life should be protected from conception. It would be selfish not to think about the unborn baby just to have complete control over one’s own body. 

Story of Getting an Abortion

A mother shares her story of getting an abortion years before it was legalized. In the 3rd month of her pregnancy, the doctors told her that her baby had Edward’s syndrome. This disease is a life-threatening condition that will halt the baby’s life not too long after birth. 

She wanted to get an abortion since there was no point in continuing the pregnancy and giving birth to a child who would not grow up. However, she did not receive the support that she badly needed at that time.

One of the doctors advised her not to terminate the pregnancy so that she could still spend some time with her baby, even if it meant that the baby was dead. She then decided to go to abortion clinics that provide services in secret.

At the first clinic she went to, she was told that she had a uterine tumor. The doctor wanted to charge her a large amount of money to remove both the tumor and the baby. If she decided not to proceed with the surgery, the doctor said that she would die and the baby would be left without a mother.

She then decided to go to another clinic after her horrifying experience. However, her experience was not any better. The staff at the clinic told her that she could not tell anyone about the procedure and point out the clinic if someone asked her. 

These experiences pushed her to not get an abortion. However, on her next consultation with her primary doctor, it was found that the baby did not have a heartbeat anymore. She was given misoprostol and was told to return if she experienced any heavy bleeding. She went home, bled heavily, and then returned to the hospital. Luckily, she survived this experience. 

The months-long experience of bearing a child with a disease, the difficulties in getting an abortion, and being treated coldly by those who she thought could help her, was so negative for her. She only needed help, but she did not receive any. 

Women Supporting Women

Monik Rodriguez shares that she offers services that provide companionship to women who are going to clinics for abortions. She is based in Salta, which is a conservative Catholic province in Argentina. In similar areas away from the big cities, there is still much stigma attached to undergoing an abortion. 

Hotlines are available for women planning to get an abortion in Argentina. The service that Monik offers can accommodate up to 125 telephone calls every month. Women from all walks of life are welcome. She receives calls from teenagers, mothers pregnant with their first child, women coming from big families, and pre-menopausal individuals.

She says that “the most important thing is to listen. It’s about trying to overcome the hurdles, accompanying them through the health system so they don’t get lost in the bureaucratic labyrinth”. 

Monik knows how difficult it is to undergo an abortion in Argentina. She herself decided to undergo an abortion way before the law was passed. She shares that the experience was negative for her because it wasn’t properly done. Because of this, she experienced complications and had to visit the hospital. After consulting with a licensed medical doctor, she found out she wasn’t pregnant all along. The stigma and lack of reliable information about abortion added pressure to her ordeal.

The Healthcare System is not Prepared for Legal Abortion in Argentina

In 2021, there were more teams offering abortion services, which increased from 943 to 1,243. More than 32,000 abortions were performed in both public hospitals and clinics in the same year. Misoprostol was also widely distributed. In 2019, only 9,000 tablets were distributed, which was much less than the 43,000 tablets distributed in 2021.

Despite the increase in supply of services and medicine, the demand is still increasing more than the system can cope with. Access to abortion services is still heavily dependent on where you are in Argentina. 

Healthcare providers also face challenges in conducting their practice. Dr. Miranda Ruiz is the only medical professional based in Tartagal that has decided to offer abortion services. Tartagal is a small town in the Northern Province that is home to around 75,000 residents.

Anti-abortion groups in this town are prominent. Dr. Ruiz was kept in prison for a short while last September 2021, after performing an abortion on a 21-year-old woman. The aunt of the patient accused Dr. Ruiz of violating the law that states that abortions can only be done until 14 weeks into the pregnancy.

She is not the only one facing related charges. Around 1,500 people have been accused of different matters related to abortion. There were also 36 court filings in 2021 alone.

Much More Needs to be Done in the Implementation of Safe Abortion in Argentina

Health policies are decided upon by each of the jurisdictional authorities. This creates differences in how the abortion law is implemented. There are also different socioeconomic factors that influence the decision of federal governments. The voice of anti-abortion groups are also loudly heard in some states more than others. 

In Catamarca, there are only two healthcare facilities that currently offer abortion services. This is in the face of 124,000 women in the childbearing age group residing in the province. 

Women in rural areas, those belonging to indigenous groups, and those in lower socioeconomic classes are most vulnerable to the consequences of unsafe abortion. There is much stigma attached to getting an abortion, so they are pushed to continue doing it in secret or proceed with a pregnancy they would rather not have.

Ms. Valeria Isla, the director of sexual and reproductive health at the Health Ministry, aims to increase access to abortion by improving the infrastructure. She plans to provide training to more medical teams and increase the reach of such services. 

Skills for performing manual vacuum aspiration (MVA) should be developed. Currently, curettage is the most commonly used procedure in the country. The use of MVA will provide safer options for women who intend to get an abortion. 

Some groups have also suggested the approval of Mifepristone. This drug can be used with misoprostol to increase its effectiveness and decrease the duration of the time needed to conduct the procedure.  

Furthermore, the rights and available resources should also be properly communicated to women. This can help remove any gray areas in accessing the services they need. There are insufficient information campaigns on what the law entails, making it difficult for women to maneuver through the system.

Sex education in the country should also be adjusted. This will enable students to become more aware of their physical development, safe sex practices, sexuality, and relationships. With knowledge, they can become more empowered in making their decisions.

Lastly, data on the implementation of the law should also be made available. This will help government officials monitor their progress and ensure that gaps are addressed. 

The passing of the law is only the beginning of promoting women’s rights. Its implementation needs to be effectively done so that women can truly benefit from what the law promises them.



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