Abortion has always been a politically charged topic, in the United States as well as abroad. In the U.S., conservatives have been trying to curtail women's’ reproductive rights for years, and the new administration seems intent on accelerating these efforts. Plans to defund Planned Parenthood are being discussed, and lawmakers in several states are trying to push legislations that will limit access to safe and legal abortions as much as they can get away with.
So what does this mean for women, exactly? When you curtail or outlaw access to abortion, what are the effects and consequences?
To find out, we can look at Argentina, a country where abortion is already illegal, and has in fact never been legal (except under very specific circumstances). I live in Argentina, and though I’ve never needed an abortion, there have been a few instances where my period has been late, and I’ve thought, “oh shit—now what?”
Abortions in Argentina in Numbers
I’m far from the only woman who has to ask herself these questions—the Ministry of Health of Argentina (Ministerio de la Salud) released a report in 2010 that estimated that 460,000 illegal abortions are conducted each year. The national campaign for free, legal and safe abortion, an NGO that has been fighting for the right to legal abortion since 2005, places the number at 500,000 per year. Because these abortions are clandestine, illegal, and secret, it’s impossible to track exact numbers or monitor the health consequences these illegal abortions can have.
Despite the secrecy, we know that every year an estimated 150 to 300 of those women die from complications related to illegal abortions, according to Celeste MacDougall, a spokesperson for the Campaign for the Right to Free, Safe, and Legal Abortion. The 2010 government report claims the number is 80, and other reports vary.
Unsafe abortion is the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths. In more developed countries, abortion rates have gone down, mostly because of improved sexual education and better access to other forms of contraception. In Argentina, abortion rates have held steady, and show no signs of going down.
The Cost of Abortion
According to an article in the national Argentine newspaper La Nación, an abortion can cost anywhere from US$1,000 to much more, depending on where it’s performed and how far along the pregnancy is (the local currency, the Argentine peso, is unstable and devalues each year, so estimates in pesos are quickly out of date).
It’s an unspoken truth that middle and upper class women, who can afford to pay for abortions in private clinics, can receive the procedure in relatively safe—albeit still illegal—circumstances. As a result, poor women are the ones who suffer disproportionately from the law against abortion, as they often have to abort in dangerous or unsanitary conditions, or deal with the financial hardship of coming up with the money to afford a safe abortion.
What the law says, exactly
But abortion isn’t 100% percent illegal in Argentina—it is permitted in certain specific circumstances. According to article 86 of the Argentine penal code, “Abortion practiced by a licensed physician with the consent of the woman involved is not punishable by law if: 1) the abortion was performed because the woman’s life or health was in danger and if this danger cannot be avoided by other means; 2) If the pregnancy is the result of rape, or sexual intercourse with a woman incapable of giving her consent due to her mental health.”
In these very narrowly defined cases, abortion is “no punible,” or not punishable by law. It still isn’t legal, but neither the doctors performing it nor the woman involved will be prosecuted. It’s difficult to find numbers on how many of these abortions are performed in Argentina every year.
In practice, these abortions were rarely practiced before 2012, when an abortion under these circumstances required juridical review before it could be performed. In 2012, the case of a girl known only as A.G, went to the Argentine Supreme Court, and won her case, which effectively clarified the scope of the law to ensure that women whose abortions did fall into one of the categories that were permitted by law were not prevented from getting an abortion by bureaucratic or practical hurdles.
The Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion in Argentina defends the right to abortion and provides resources for women; they also lobby the government for abortion to be legalized, and organize protests and events to further the cause. Before A.G.’s case went to trial, “a woman who requested one of these legally permitted abortions couldn’t get access to one,” explains MacDougall.
Other abortion cases have gone to trial in recent years. The most famous case, the Caso Belén (named after the pseudonym used to protect the woman’s identity--Belen is a common name in Argentina) involved a young woman who suffered a miscarriage, or “spontaneous abortion” in a hospital in 2014. Belen maintains that she didn’t know she was pregnant, but a fetus was found in one of the hospital bathrooms that the hospital staff accused her of hiding. The medical professionals involved violated patient confidentiality and denounced her to the police, who then held her for over 900 days without proof that the fetus was hers, and without conducting a DNA analysis. Belen was finally released in March 2017.
What Society Says About Abortion
Much like the U.S., Argentina and its people are divided on the issue of abortion. A 2007 study conducted by despenalizar.org.ar, a pro-choice coalition of women from various organizations and NGOs, suggests that at that time, between 44% and 62% percent of the population agreed that abortion should be decriminalized, which means that women who have an abortion shouldn’t be arrested or prosecuted food for it. This isn’t the same as supporting legal abortion however, and the Catholic church has a powerful support base in Argentina — Pope Francis is the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and the first Latin American pope.
But feminist movements have also gained traction in Argentina in recent years. Ni Una Menos, or “not one less,” was created in 2015 to bring attention to “femicidios,” or homicides committed against women. Ni Una Menos has organized national women’s strikes, protests, and helped make street harassment illegal. They’ve brought attention to many women’s issues in Argentina, and include legalizing abortion as one of their goals.
The Campaign for Legal, Free, and Safe Abortion, mentioned above, also organizes marches and events to campaign for legal abortion, as well as presenting law projects to the national congress. Their goals are summarized in their slogan: “Sexual Education to Make Decisions. Contraception to Prevent Abortions. Legal Abortions to Prevent Deaths.” (In Spanish: Educacion sexual para decidir, anticonceptivos para no avortar y avorto legal para no morir).
Legalizing abortion in my adoptive country is an uphill battle. But Argentine society continues to evolve, and many feminist women are pushing to get laws passed by the national congress. In the meantime, I hope that too many women don’t suffer from the consequences of unsafe abortions or a skewed justice system, and are able to make decisions for their own body safely and affordably.
Sam Harrison is a freelance writer who lives and works in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She writes about culture, travel, feminism, South America, and more. You can find some of her writing here or follow her on Twitter: @cest_qui_sam.
Photo Credit: Reuters.com - Enrique Marcarian