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Argentina’s abortion battle pushes women into legal labyrinth

This piece was written by Rebecca Lee Sanchez and the video produced by Emily Judem as part of a GlobalPost Special Report called “Birth Rights,” produced by The GroundTruth Project. The project is made possible by the Ford Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation and International Center for Journalists, with a special thanks to Gustavo Mariel.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The day Marcelo and Rocio learned they were expecting a baby, they said it was as if their souls had returned to their bodies.

The married couple, both in their early 30s, had been trying to conceive for three years. After what they described as a “long and frustrating wait,” they tried artificial insemination and Rocio became pregnant in their second attempt late last year. Their families began expecting the first nephew and grandson for either side.

“Achieving pregnancy filled us with immense happiness,” Marcelo said. “Finally, after so much sacrifice, we realized our biggest dream, which we’d been imagining together since the day we met.”

In the early stages, everything appeared normal. They were a healthy pair — no obesity, no drinking, no smoking or drugs — and the baby seemed to be growing well. But at four and a half months, a fetal scan showed “significant and irreversible birth defects” affecting the baby’s motor skills, heart and head.

“It was the saddest day of our lives,” Marcelo said. “All we could do was hold one another and mourn inconsolably. We never imagined that the worst was yet to come.”

As she approached the 20th week of her pregnancy, Rocio became physically ill from the stress. “After a long struggle, we realized it was not emotionally or psychologically healthy for my wife to continue living this nightmare with an uncertain end.”

Marcelo and Rocio decided to terminate the pregnancy. Though they had the support of their families, they did not have the support of the state.

Argentinian women who seek an abortion must navigate a winding labyrinth that includes the still-powerful apparatus of the Catholic Church, Argentina’s convoluted criminal code, political and social pressure and a legion of morally opposed doctors.

As a result, according to Human Rights Watch, there are approximately 500,000 underground abortions in Argentina each year — with complications accounting for 30 percent of the maternal mortality rate, more than 2.5 times that of Uruguay or Chile, where abortion is totally illegal. Latin America also has a higher abortion rate than any other region in the world.

It’s a statistic that begs the question: if the church aims to protect all life, does the death of women on such a grand scale not create a moral paradox of immense proportions?

Once Marcelo and Rocio decided to carry out an abortion, they visited six consecutive doctors who refused them. Argentina’s doctors have nearly full discretion about whether or not to provide abortions, which are technically illegal but permitted in cases of rape or danger to a woman’s health or life.

Unable to traverse the quickly knotting maze, Marcelo and Rocio turned to Ruth Zurbriggen, a teacher and activist with Colectiva Feminista La Revuelta.

“When they came to me it was through an email sent to an address they found on our website,” said Zurbriggen. “I, until today, do not personally know this couple, but we have shared a very important affection, because we did for them what a doctor should have done to guarantee their right.”

The majority of doctors refuse to perform abortions, claiming “conscientious objection” because, they say, the practice is against their religious morals.

As a result, those women who look to end their pregnancies must often race a corporeal clock, roaming from hospital to hospital, finally conceding to the eventuality of an underground — and many times unsafe — procedure. In some cases, this results in a late-term abortion, putting the mother at greater risk.

“Doctors believe their knowledge or religious dogma are above the laws,” Zurbriggen said. “And so the women of this country, when they need to access a legal abortion, they must navigate labyrinths. These are institutional labyrinths, social labyrinths, political labyrinths, but also labyrinths that course through individual subjectivity. Women most often end up in the clandestine circuit.”

The 1921 criminal code, still in effect today, prohibits abortion in all cases except when a woman’s life or health are at risk, or in the event of pregnancy as the result of rape. But scholars and activists say a 2012 Supreme Court clarification of the legal code, prompted by the case of a young girl who had been raped, may provide loopholes for doctors who are pro-choice, and for women seeking abortions.

Because proper protocols for carrying out legal abortions were never developed, regulation of such “non-publishable” abortions is difficult, according to Paola Bergallo, a law professor at the University of Palermo. Doctors’ right to conscientious objection is a subject Bergallo said is “under-regulated and being used as a means to obstruct access.”

According to the Supreme Court, a healthcare provider should declare conscientious objection at the time of employment. Hospitals must provide a directory that notifies the public of its objectors, while also referring patients to doctors who will provide the service. Each hospital must have at least one professional who does not object.

In practice, this is hardly ever the case, Bergallo said, and policy makers who are obliged to guarantee that healthcare providers fulfill these responsibilities have not been active.

“This is something in which the government is failing to comply with its obligations towards the rights of women vis a vis the rights of the objectors,” she said.

‘Dr. Aborto’

And so thousands of women tread a serpentine path that often leads to various dead-ends before arriving in the belly of the underground complex.

“Clandestinity generates all kinds of things, none of which are good,” said Dr. German Cardoso, a surgeon who came to be known in Buenos Aires as ‘Dr. Aborto’ or “Dr. Abortion.”

“The worst can be found in the underground,” he said.” The worst of the worst — people that are neither doctors nor nurses. That’s the problem.”

As a doctor who came from a Catholic family, Cardoso said it is not always easy to reconcile his medical ethics and religious morals.

“My parents were active Catholics and I went to Catholic school,” he said. “It’s not something you can change, which is why I say that the conflict always remains. But the issue of abortion is also driven in part by the church. They incite fear and guilt, and there is no help for women who are going to go forward with an abortion no matter what.”

In the capital city of Buenos Aires, he explained, for every 100,000 births, 20 women die. In many provinces, that number reaches over 160 deaths for every 100,000 births.

He does not keep any records, Cardoso said, but he estimates that he has performed between 2,000 and 3,000 abortions. He once ran a clinic in the federal capital, but it only lasted for six months before being raided and shut down in 2011 by the metropolitan police. He was detained while police tore through his office in search of evidence, but ultimately let go.

“They knew that their investigation could go nowhere but that it had to end in a spectacular raid,” he said. “And that’s how they did it. It was a spectacle that played across every television station, in every media outlet.”

It was a witch hunt, he later said, like everything surrounding the issue of abortion.

Today Cardoso owns a clinic in the town of Tandil, southwest of the province of Buenos Aires. And though he said he could understand how social condemnation and internal conflict would lead someone toward conscientious objection, he said he uses his interpretation of the 1921 law and the 2012 Supreme Court clarification to treat “an epidemic — a problem of public health.”

The position of the church

As a problem of public health, a phrase also used by Dolores Fenoy, who runs the Ministry of Health’s only sexual health hotline, the mortality rate is great and there is often no way to choose to save one life without choosing against the other.

The official position of the Catholic Church condemns abortion, saying, “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.”

But to what degree is prohibiting abortion to save the life of the fetus considered a lesser evil, when the death toll among women accounts for such a high percentage of preventable maternal deaths? Who decides who gets to live and who does not — which life is considered more valuable?

Those, according to Father Ruben Revello, are not the questions at hand. The church maintains, he said, “the life of a baby is not more valuable than the life of a mother.”

“The lives of both are equally valuable because both share in a common dignity, which is the human dignity,” said Revello.

Revello is a priest within the Catholic Church of Argentina and the director of the Bioethics Institute for the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina — an autonomous university which is nonetheless directly related to the Holy See, the Vatican.

He is the bioethics expert for the Church of Argentina, and the go-to on the topic of abortion. His office, on the seventh floor of the Puerto Madero building, boasts religious authority.

Saintly figurines lightly decorate his bookshelf on one side of the room. On the other side, photographs of Revello with assorted popes — including Pope Francis, with whom he has worked closely for many years — are displayed neatly atop a clean white cabinet. Outside, his balcony overlooks the Puente de la Mujer, or Women’s Bridge, which leads to a number of streets named after significant women.

Asked whether or not he believes the church’s support of the continued criminalization of abortion in this environment presents a moral paradox, Revello said simply “no,” because “the law does not generate danger.”

“What does generate danger is to behave in a high-risk manner, and have an abortion in bad conditions” he continued. “The law does not obligate them to have an abortion… so no one puts them in danger, they assume the risk. They understand the conditions under which this takes place in Argentina. No one puts a gun to their heads and says they have to abort.”

The logic that the legalization of abortion is one solution to minimizing the maternal mortality rate, he said, is “absurd.”

Instead, Revello proposed, larger societal barriers need to be addressed. If a woman wants to move forward with a pregnancy but cannot because she is poor, “you create an alternative,” he said. By helping her to find work, or a place to stay.

“That there are groups which intend to go against the current legislation in order to impose a legalization of abortion is a message in itself to our society,” he said. “It’s like telling our society that if it is not penalized, it must be because it isn’t bad. And an abortion is always a failure.

“Never can even one woman think that an abortion is a success,” he continued. “It is a failure of the mother who is having the baby removed, and also a failure of her partner, who didn’t accompany her in the pregnancy, who in many cases may have abused her. It is a failure of the society that could not inform these people about ways to explore their sexuality with a certain rationality, or that couldn’t protect the woman from violation. Also of a family who left her alone. Also of the church, when it couldn’t respond to the situation. All this is to say, every abortion is a failure that reproaches our weakness as humans.”

‘The belly was growing’

Scouring their city for a willing doctor, as if steering through one of famous Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’s infinitely puzzled constructions, Marcelo and Rocio felt that they were running out of time.

“Institutions flatly refused to [perform the abortion] within their facilities,” Marcelo said. “The doctors washed their hands of the problem and were unconcerned… We toured the entire city of Buenos Aires from one end to the other, and part of the greater province of Buenos Aires, too. No use.”

“The tension increased, the belly was growing and we could feel the baby kicking, but our quest was not progressing,” he added.

As Marcelo and Rocio searched online for an organization that could help, they found a group that said it could lead them to “safe” procedures. But when they visited the group’s office they learned it was a religious organization “masquerading” as a pro-choice group.

“Then we realized that the soul can also hurt, although it has no nerve endings,” Marcelo said. “It’s the grief at the impending loss of a child. It is helplessness because nothing in the world can remedy it. It is exhaustion with the extensive and futile struggle. It is frustration with the unfulfilled dream. And desperation in feeling alone, like you’re sinking in an ocean.”

Finally, in the 23rd week of pregnancy and with the help of Ruth Zurbriggen, the couple was able to emerge from the snarled series of obstacles presented by the institutional bureaucracy, and reach a doctor who would perform the abortion — for free.

Once it was over and Rocio was in good health, Zurbriggen said, the couple called her and they cried together for a long while.

“I felt like we were able to take leaps of liberty,” she detailed. “It brought me calm and joy, because I knew I had helped to alleviate the pain of these two people who I didn’t know personally, but about whom I knew something so important.”

With Argentina’s next general elections just a year away, the National Campaign for the Right to Choose has recently presented legislation proposing the decriminalization of abortion to Congress for the fifth time.

In July, the University of Buenos Aires — the largest and most important university in Argentina, and second largest in Latin America — for the first time came out as the biggest co-governmental institution in support of this legislation.

The proposal, which was first introduced in 2007, has gained the backing of over 60 representatives — up from 20 signatures in 2008.

In the end, Marcelo and Rocio said, their experience was neither happy nor desired, and they still have many unanswered questions.

In a country they say is consumed by its right to property, concerned with safeguarding homes, cars or businesses, it seems people have forgotten “the main right to property — the right to ‘self.’”

“We have the feeling that we need to mature a lot as a country and as a society,” Marcelo said. “There is also so much interest in improving public health and funding the development of medicine. But what good is knowledge if you cannot decide?”

Given the tightening political focus on campaigning and a peaking religious fervor that has accompanied the election of the still-new Argentinean Pope Francis, few Argentinians think the proposal will survive Congress this time around.

“It seems as though our bodies are the last scene in the last battle being fought in this moment,” said Elsa Schvartzman, sociology professor at the University of Buenos Aires and member of the National Campaign for the Right to Choose. “And it is a very strong fight.”

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