SANTIAGO — Argentina is expected to become the first major Latin American country to legalize abortion. Earlier this year, President Alberto Fernández sent a bill to Congress to legalize pregnancy termination in the country and keep one of his campaign promises. However, the legislative process has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and this week tensions reemerged.
Several pro-choice organizations came together and are putting mounting pressure on the Argentinian government to legalize abortion. International Safe Abortion Day was observed on Sept. 28, and Argentinians used the date to send a letter to the government.
Over 1,000 public figures signed a petition, urging the government to streamline legislative discussion of the bill, as they say it is a pending debt. “The government made a public commitment … Unsafe abortion leads to deaths, as well as short and long-term consequences. We need the state to provide healthcare to Argentinian girls, teenagers, and women.”
Argentina has a Catholic majority, so abortion has been an ongoing discussion for years. When President Alberto Fernández took office in December 2019, hopes to legalize abortion rose, as he is the first president to openly support it.
The first cases of Covid-19 in Argentina were registered in March. Thereafter, attention shifted away from the abortion bill and pressure petered out, as the country went into crisis mode: according to Johns Hopkins, Argentina has seen 751,000 cases and almost 17,000 deaths.
Six months into the pandemic, pro-choice organizations have once again started to raise their voices and demand that the bill continue to be discussed.
Reasons For the Bill
In Argentina, abortion is legal in two circumstances: if a pregnancy endangers the mother’s life or health or if it results from rape. In all others, it is banned and even punishable with prison terms.
Pro-choice organizations argue that even the current provisions in the abortion law are not always respected. An example of this is the 2019 case of an 11-year-old who was forced to give birth, after being raped by a 65-year-old man, following a district attorney’s denial of her right to end her pregnancy.
According to Amnesty International, every year 500,000 women have illegal abortions in Argentina. It is also one of the leading causes of maternal deaths in the country.
Recently, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report, urging the government to legalize abortion. “Access to legal abortion and post-abortion care after an illegal procedure depends heavily on the person’s socio-economic background and where they live.”
HRW says that almost seven out of 10 pregnancies among those under 19-year-olds in Argentina are unintended. The majority of these women come from low-income households, and the pregnancies often result from rape.
The HRW report concludes that 15 years after the organization “first released a report documenting barriers to abortion and post-abortion care in Argentina, our research … revealed that most barriers remain, and women and girls continue to see their rights denied.”
Abortion in Chile: Only Allowed in Three Cases
Much like in Argentina, several pro-choice organizations in Chile have been demanding for years that abortion be legalized. Currently, it is only allowed in three exceptional cases: when a pregnancy results from rape, when the mother’s life is in danger, and when the pregnancy is nonviable.
Amid the 2019 social crisis, feminists united once again and voiced demands to protect victims of violence and allow abortion in all circumstances.
According to data from the Mesa de Acción por el Aborto (Focus Group for Abortion), the number of voluntary abortions per year ranges from 80,000 to 260,000, of which only 3 percent are due to one of the three exceptions; the rest are performed illegally.
Pro-choice organizations argue that not only does the law barely cover 3 percent of all abortions, but also within that percentage, many women are denied the possibility to end a pregnancy – especially those who don’t have the economic means to do it privately.
A report by the Ministry of Health showed that 50 percent of obstetricians in the public sector refuse to perform abortions in cases of rape, even if the law says it is legal. The reason health workers refuse is because the law also allows for conscientious objection.
Javiera Canales, a lawyer and human rights activist, told Amnesty International that there is also a problem with the state’s monitoring program. Just in 2019 alone, 647 rape victims between the ages of 10 and 13 entered a prenatal care program. “Why was the law not applied in those rape cases? Nobody is in a position to explain that because the state has not been checking.”
Fernanda Gándara is currently finishing her journalism degree at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She’s passionate about writing, environmental issues and women empowerment. You can find her on Twitter as @FerGMarchant