Political Interference Threatens Limited Right to Abortion in Argentina

By Katya Pollock (PO’21)

Last month, an 11-year-old in Argentina underwent a procedure similar to a caesarian section after officials in the northwestern province of Tucumán obstructed her right to a legal interruption of pregnancy (ILE). The girl, addressed using the pseudonym Lucía, had allegedly been raped by her grandmother’s 65-year-old partner. The case comes less than a year after Argentina’s senate narrowly rejected a bill to legalize voluntary abortion, mobilizing women’s rights groups across Latin America.

Healthcare workers discovered that 11-year-old Lucía was sixteen weeks pregnant after she attended a primary care clinic in rural Tucumán complaining of severe stomach pains. It was revealed after clinicians’ questioning that she had been raped by her grandmother’s partner. Two days later, clinic workers sent Lucía to the Eva Perón Hospital near the capital of Tucumán to receive prenatal care, where both she and her mother requested doctors to perform an abortion. Lucía reportedly told a hospital psychologist: “I want you to remove what the old man put inside me.”

Since 1921, Article 86 of the Argentine Criminal Code has recognized a woman’s right to a legal interruption of pregnancy (ILE), equivalent to an abortion, in cases where the woman has been raped or the pregnancy poses a risk to the woman’s health. Lucía’s lawyers argue that she had a right to an ILE on both of these accounts. As an adolescent, Lucía faced high risks of anemia, preeclampsia, and infections during her pregnancy. Yet, she was denied the procedure and was instead given medications which would advance the fetus’s development. According to Lucía’s lawyers, Eva Perón Hospital allowed anti-abortion activists to visit Lucia’s hospital room, where they pressured the girl to continue her pregnancy. Lucía reportedly attempted suicide twice while pregnant.

After receiving contact from Lucía’s relatives, a women’s rights group filed an emergency lawsuit against Eva Perón Hospital on Lucia’s behalf. Although the hospital was court-ordered to carry out the abortion, it was unable to find a public-sector doctor willing to perform the procedure; under Argentina’s conscientious objection laws, healthcare workers are entitled to refuse care which infringes upon their personal beliefs. Reproductive rights activists believe that doctors in Argentina often declare themselves conscientious objectors for fear of attracting professional and personal criticism from pro-life groups.

Two private-sector doctors agreed to terminate Lucía’s pregnancy but determined that it was by then too late to perform the abortion vaginally. The doctors instead performed a more invasive hysterotomy abortion, a procedure similar to a caesarian section where the fetus is removed through an incision in the abdomen. Anti-abortion activists reportedly protested outside of the hospital during the procedure demanding the pregnancy be carried to term. Lucía survived the surgery and hospital staff placed the fetus into a neonatal incubator, where it died a week later.

Lucía’s case has quickly become another battleground in the national movement for reproductive rights in Argentina. Women’s rights groups have suggested that the provincial politicians of Tucumán intentionally obstructed Lucía’s care to force her to undergo a live birth. In August 2018, shortly after Argentina’s National Congress rejected a bill which would authorize voluntary abortion, the local legislature of Tucumán passed a resolution officially declaring Tucumán a “pro-life province.” The resolution invited the municipalities of Tucumán “to develop activities and actions in favor of the two lives [the lives of the mother and the fetus].” Although Argentinian provinces are required by federal law to uphold the right of a woman to a legal interruption of pregnancy, compliance with this law has been inconsistent at the subnational level. The motto of “saving both lives” has become a rallying cry of pro-life activists and was included in a statement by the Tucumán government on Lucía’s case.

Only 3 percent of women in Latin America currently live in countries where abortion is broadly legal. Women’s rights groups, freshly galvanized by Argentina’s near-legalization of voluntary abortion in 2018, have mobilized across the region in the fight for legal recognition of their reproductive rights. Lucía’s case and thousands of others like it show that the law remains only a partly effective tool against powerful and politically-entrenched pro-life attitudes, with tragic consequences for the most vulnerable of Latin American girls and women.

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