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Lessons from Argentina's abortion rights movement

August 18, 2022
tags:#Argentina, #women's rights, #abortion, #Reproductive Rights, #Roe V. Wade
by:Cecilia Fernández Castañón
As inequalities in abortion access and the criminalisation of obstetric emergencies persist in Argentina, the work of activists and experts pushing for change reverberates beyond the country's borders.

After a historic campaign lasting more than two decades by the nation's feminist movement, Argentina finally passed a law on 30 December, 2020 permitting abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy.

But although the legislation covers all provinces and the service is officially accessible throughout Argentina, structural inequities in the health system persist and women in certain areas of the country face obstacles in accessing the procedure.  

The legalisation of abortion has also failed to end the criminalisation of obstetric emergencies. Most recently, the country has been roiled by the case of a woman from Corrientes who had been imprisoned for eight months after suffering a miscarriage at home.

Against this backdrop, the recent overturning of the Roe vs Wade ruling, which legalised abortion in the United States for more than 50 years, raised the alarm about the possibility of a rollback of reproductive rights acquired by women elsewhere in the world. It demonstrated that legal norms alone are insufficient in guaranteeing access to abortion and that consistent monitoring of reproductive health services is essential.

Early indicators

In the first year since the law passed, 74,071 treatments with misoprostol - a drug recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for safe abortions - were distributed through Argentina's health system. This figure is substantially higher than in 2020, when abortion was only available in specific cases, such as a risk to the mother's life or rape, and only 18,590 were provided.

Additionally, the number of clinics that perform abortions increased by 46 percent, with a total of 1,327 centres in the country, as reported by Proyecto Mirar, an initiative monitoring the implementation of abortion law and policy in Argentina. The initiative's ultimate objective is to improve access to and the quality of services and contribute data to the process of expanding rights in the region.

"We are monitoring more than 90 indicators that allow us to see the evolution in real time and identify gaps and inequalities by jurisdictions to detect which are the most vulnerable populations that we should attend to," Mercedes Krause, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of State and Society (CEDES) and a member of the Proyecto Mirar team, told Fair Planet.  

"The first data showed that the number of services provided has increased significantly, but also revealed that the provinces in the north of the country have the most difficulties in accessing abortion," she added. "This has to do with many factors, but mainly with the fact that they are the ones that historically have the greatest public health needs, as they have very low budgets and more impoverished populations than the rest of the country." 

Criminalisation continues

After being prosecuted and imprisoned for eight months in a police station in a city in the province of Corrientes, a 30-year-old woman who had an obstetric emergency at home and lost an advanced pregnancy was released and acquitted in early August. The legal procedure had multiple irregularities and it was the mobilisation of feminist activists which gave visibility to the incident.

This, however, is but one example of what continues to occur in certain provinces in Argentina, where health services do not have the necessary preparation to assist women and guarantee access to their reproductive rights as recognised by the law. According to a report on the criminalisation of abortion and other obstetric events by the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), the majority of criminalised women in the country come from vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds.

The recent situation in Corrientes indicated that the legalisation of abortion has not been able to resolve this crisis. The investigation published by CELS points to several examples of  involuntary and traumatic situations in the course of a pregnancy in which a complication in an unexpected birth, a birth in poor conditions or a spontaneous abortion - under circumstances of precariousness and fear - result in serious criminal charges, such as aggravated homicide or abandonment of a person.

"These are other ways in which the criminalisation of women and their reproductive capacity is advancing," the report indicates.

What can be learned from Argentina's case

The green bandanas identifying the pioneers of Argentina's campaign for legalising abortion have spread to other Latin American countries. The symbol, which was inspired by the badges worn in the 1970s by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who protested against the disappearance of their children kidnapped and murdered by the military dictatorship, was also adopted by some US women who are mobilising to recover the rights taken away from them.

"The determination of the women of Argentina, who pushed for 20 years to get a law, is something that should inspire us in the United States," Brianna Keefe-Oates, a public health researcher and doctoral candidate at Harvard University, told Fair Planet.

"We have different systems and situations, but it's important that we look at what were the most effective strategies for gaining popular and legislative support to bring back guaranteed access to abortion across our country." 

Keefe-Oates is currently working as a consultant for Ibis Reproductive Health, an NGO researching social and clinical science with the goal of improving access to and the quality of health services with a particular focus on reproductive justice and equity. Through Ibis, she works with Proyecto Mirar in Argentina and believes that the permanent monitoring of the implementation of laws and the elaboration of reports is the best way to guarantee the right to abortion and improve access to various services. 

"It is important to establish the key indicators to measure quality and to know who is accessing abortion and who is not," Keefe-Oates added. "Preliminary data is showing us that women living in the poorest provinces of Argentina are the ones who have the most difficulties.

"This is similar to what is happening in the United States, where in the most powerful states women can still access abortion, but many others have lost that possibility. These are the inequalities in access that must be ended." 

Image by Gayatri Malhotra.

Article written by:
Cecilia Fernández Castañón
Embed from Getty Images
After a historic campaign lasting more than two decades by the nation's feminist movement, Argentina finally passed a law in December 2020 permitting abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy.
© Marcos Brindicci
Embed from Getty Images
A pro-choice activist celebrates after Argentina's Senate approved a bill to legalise abortion in Buenos Aires on 30 December, 2020.
© Ronaldo Schemidt
Embed from Getty Images
The green bandanas identifying the pioneers of Argentina's campaign for legalising abortion have spread to other Latin American countries.
© Marcelo Endelli / Stringer
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