Argentina: 500,000 Reasons To Legalize Abortion

It was November 1, All Saints' Day. As Buenos Aires woke up slowly to a midweek holiday, I joined women from all corners of the country in a movement of green flags blowing in the wind. We were preparing to march to Congress to support a bill that would legalize abortion.

My fellow activists and I filled three train cars, with more women joining us at each stop. Amidst the chatter of women's voices, the noise of the rails, and the swaying of the train, I thought about the decision I made many years ago.

When I became pregnant as a teenager and my boyfriend abandoned me, my parents asked me what I wanted to do: Have the baby and keep it? Give her up for adoption? Interrupt the pregnancy? They gave me all the options and made sure they were there for me no matter my decision. All of these choices had consequences, but I felt safe knowing that I was not alone.

I decided to keep my baby for two reasons. First, I wanted her with all my heart. Second -- and this is essential -- I understood that the people around me were willing and able to help. I had the support of my whole family. I had the skills to raise my daughter, continue my studies, and provide a good upbringing for my child. In my situation, the choice not to abort was easy.

I am a single mother with a wonderful daughter. But my situation could have been very different. In fact, for many of the women with me on the train, it was a very different story. What would I have done without my family's support? This is the question that led me to stand up and march to make abortion legal, safe, and free.

Favoring Justice

According to the National Campaign for a Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion, 500,000 abortions are performed illegally each year in Argentina. That makes 500,000 reasons to seriously question our level of honesty as a society.

Recently, the Supreme Court of Argentina -- in a decision that favors a basic sense of justice -- stated that abortion in cases of rape would not be punished. This declaration means that the rape victim, as well the doctor who performs the abortion, cannot be jailed or prosecuted. Notably, this court sentence also states that the decision to abort is personal and between the woman affected and her doctor.

The recent decision to legalize the practice in cases of rape has two beneficial effects: It recognizes the right of women to decide on a pregnancy resulting from the commission of a crime, which is an improvement on women's autonomy over her body. It also sets an important precedent that again opens a national debate about abortion in Argentina.

While this decision is a step forward for Argentina's women, it remains that access to free, safe, and legal abortions is a must -- not only for those women who have been the victims of rape, but also for women who decide that abortion is the right choice for them.

Today, 40 percent of all pregnancies in Argentina are interrupted. In most cases the procedure is done in awful, unsanitary conditions. Clearly criminalization does not prevent women from getting abortions. Nearly 80,000 women each year are hospitalized due to post-procedure complications. Botched abortions are the leading cause of maternal death in Argentina, representing 30 percent of maternal deaths. In many cases, abortion complications and deaths are not reported to authorities. For every woman who seeks medical help due to complications, seven others in the same situation do not seek help.

A Matter of Equity

On the train, Mariana*, a young mother of three boys, turned to me to share her experience.

"I got pregnant with my fourth and my partner just left," she said. "He threw me out of the house. I didn't work. He didn't take any responsibility. No woman imagines her life with an abortion. It's absurd to think women desire abortion. I borrowed money. I took what I had in the bank to pay for it. It hurts me -- people's judgment -- because they don't know anything about me."

It's estimated that in Argentina an illegal abortion costs around $1,000. Who could get $1,000 so easily? Women access different practices according to their financial status. An abortion in an expensive, discreet, and private clinic is different from the dirty room in a marginal suburb that poor women like Mariana are most likely to encounter.

"Crime" and "sin" are words used only against the poor women who are most likely to die or go to prison as a result of their decision to end their pregnancies. When abortion is practiced in a fancy place, it is not called a crime and carries no blame. It's called "removal of tissue." Abortion remains illegal for high-income patients, but money changes everything: It pays for safe abortions and also the silence of physicians. It bars some people from sanitary risk, legal judgment, and social punishment.

Denying women decent health care is a lucrative business in Argentina. The 500,000 illegal abortions each year represent a $500 million industry -- money that could instead be used to improve social assistance and motherhood support programs. In addition to financial burden, women who seek abortions face social stigma. Feelings of grief, guilt, isolation and punishment are ghosts that torture women's lives in many of these cases.

"If this sorrow is mishandled it becomes pathological, with bio-psychosocial implications like psychotic depression with suicidal consequences," says Grace Estefania, a psychologist who works in a public hospital. "Since most of the women who have abortions are alone or young, the risk takes dangerous levels. The stigma of the 'clandestine situation' increases the guilty feeling, because it's socially criminalized. It's not possible to address a proper therapy and control the situation. We don't have a law that allows us to do that."

What is the real crime and sin here? Since 1983, 3,000 women have died as a result of illegal abortions. I think the real crime is the inequality of our society; I say the real sin is the indifference toward a health crisis that affects mostly lower-class women. In Latin America, mired in poverty and inequality, we put the burden and the blame on poor women who suffer or die from clandestine abortions while at the same time excluding them from other cultural and social services.

Why are we, as a society, criminalizing these women? Like the Gospel story, we are holding a stone in each hand, ready to punish the adulteress. But who could cast the first stone when the evidence reveals that we have our share of guilt in social inequalities -- of which abortion is one of the cruelest expressions?

A New Paradigm

I think of my pregnancy and the early years raising my daughter. I had people behind me. My baby was a communitarian commitment. I owe my life to my family, my friends, and my neighbors. I had professors at university who allowed me to attend classes with my baby or leave early when I had to take her to the doctor. That's how motherhood must be valued, no matter a woman's social origin or marital status. Motherhood and child care are social responsibilities and all of us have a share in them. I am tired of hearing the cliché "children are the future." Mothers are the present.

We need a new concept of citizenship where women reclaim control over our bodies. We need early education that teaches responsible sexual behavior. We must implement clear policies on family, sexuality, and motherhood that, on one hand, prevent the situations that lead to an abortion and, on the other hand, provide a healthy and safe environment to receive an abortion when this is the path a woman decides to follow. True democracy must address our health, protect life, and support our decisions. Abortion is not a religious or philosophical dilemma. It is a public health emergency we have to face without hesitation. We need public policies based in equity for exercising our sexual and reproductive rights.

I got off the train and joined the mass of women behind a large canvas that read, "Educación sexual para decidir, Anticonceptivos para no abortar, Aborto legal para no morir," meaning we need sexual education to make suitable decisions, free access to contraceptives to plan pregnancies, and -- in cases where things don't go as planned -- legal abortion to protect our lives.

The church's threats of Hell haven't prevented abortions. It is time to stop pointing fingers and take charge of the society we have. This is a historic moment for women to recover empowerment around our sexuality.

While the green flags of the march waved above my head, I knew hundreds of thousands of women were facing critical situations with damaging consequences very difficult to reverse.

On All Saints' Day, we gathered to make the forceful statement that we don't want more of our women killed by illegal abortions. Those women could be our sisters, cousins, neighbors, friends, and co-workers. They could be me, my daughter, or even you. I have been blessed, which is why I support those women who have not been so blessed.

As a teenager, I chose to become a mom. Last November, I chose, with the same commitment, to march with other women to support the motion to decriminalize abortion. I want women to be able to seek help openly and without shame. The hypocrisy is killing us.

*Names have been changed to protect the well being of women who kindly gave their testimonies

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