For the first time in over a century, Argentines are able to legally abort. But the historic change in the law may not help them much at hospitals like Jujuy in the country’s northern province, where everyone except an obstetrician gives a simple answer: no.
Opponents of abortion have been dismayed since the procedure was legalized in December. But they are far from having capitulated. Lawsuits are underway alleging that the new law is unconstitutional. And they insist that doctors know they have the right to refuse to terminate a pregnancy – a message that is winning the support of many in rural areas.
“The law is already a reality, but that does not mean that we have to stay put,” said general practitioner Gloria Abán, opponent of the legalization of abortion. She travels the distant valleys of Clachaquí, in the province of Salta, to treat patients. “We have to be proactive.”
In neighboring Jujuy province, 29 out of 30 obstetricians at Maternidade and Infantil Hector Quintana hospital declared conscientious objection, as permitted by law. Just like a handful of the 120 gynecologists in the province, said Dr Rubén Véliz, director of the obstetrics department at Hector Quintana Hospital.
“We are really up against the hurricane,” he said.
Argentina’s abortion law marked a major shift towards reproductive rights in Latin America, a region that has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws, pushing for expanding access to safe abortion by Colombia, Mexico and Chile.
But even officials in the administration of President Alberto Fernández, who introduced the bill, recognize that there is still a lot of hard work to ensure women’s access to the process. “Activists will have to play a key role,” said Argentina’s Minister for Women, Gender and Diversity, Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta.
The law, which entered into force on January 24, allows for voluntary termination of pregnancy during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Until then, abortion, banned when Argentina adopted its first penal code in 1886, was only accepted by law in cases of rape or when the pregnancy endangered the health of the mother.
In recent days, anti-abortion activists – who have fought to no avail as lawmakers debated the law – have turned to the courts, filing lawsuits in at least ten provinces demanding that the new law be declared unconstitutional.
They won a first skirmish in the northern province of Chaco, where, late last month, a judge issued a precautionary measure to prevent the law from coming into force. But pro-abortion activists predict they will win in court.
“It was foreseeable that some sectors would decide to turn to judges in an attempt to block the law,” commented Vilma Ibarra, the legal secretary to the president, who drafted the abortion law and played a key role in its approval.
Ibarra said one of the lawsuits is also expected to reach the Supreme Court of Justice and reaffirm the law: “We have no doubts about this.”
But the courts are not the biggest obstacle.
The law faces widespread opposition from doctors in rural areas, especially in the northern provinces of the country, where Catholic and Evangelical churches have considerable influence.
“About 90% of the healthcare professionals in my hospital are conscientious objectors,” said gynecologist and anti-abortion activist Mirta Gisela Reynaga, from Tucumán province.
Pro-abortion activists say federal and state officials are taking too long to devise plans to implement the new law, especially in conservative-majority areas. And this, they say, put their opponents in an advantageous position.
“Those who are against the abortion law are much more agile than the ministry and have pressured people to register as conscientious objectors,” said gynecologist Cecilia Ousset, from Tucumán, a province conservative known for her restrictive policies on termination of pregnancy.
Ousset became involved in Argentina’s abortion wars in 2019, after helping an 11-year-old girl who was raped but not allowed to have an abortion. The baby was born by Caesarean section, but died soon after. The affair has sparked moods across the country.
Officials say opposition from doctors will have limited impact, as the vast majority of abortions in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy are performed with pills and do not require a medical procedure. Even when a procedure is needed, they said, there will be ways around obstacles.
“The practice is guaranteed, because if a hospital does not have professionals who are not conscientious objectors, we will transfer the patient to another hospital,” said Claudia Castro, director of the women’s health area of the branch. general maternity and childhood. by Jujuy.
While fighting to improve access to abortion in rural areas, activists are also working to clear the criminal records of hundreds of women accused of abortion-related crimes in recent years. The Center for Legal and Social Studies, a human rights organization that campaigned for the legalization of abortion, said that between 2012 and 2020, there were more than 1,500 lawsuits directly related to abortion, in addition to 37 for “obstetric events”, a term generally indicating spontaneous abortions.
The first category of process may be easier to deal with. Since abortion is now allowed, all pending lawsuits can be dismissed, although this is not automatic, said Diego Morales, a lawyer who works for the legal center.
Activists want to ensure that even processes that have not resulted in convictions are closed.
“The conviction rate is very low, but the criminal procedure itself is already functioning as a punishment, due to the stigma it carries,” said lawyer Soledad Deza, from Tucumán, who represented many women accused. of having an abortion.