Abortion debate flares in Argentina

On Tuesday, a judge in the province of Mendoza declared that an abortion to be performed on a twelve-year-old girl, who’d been raped by her stepfather, would be illegal.

The child was taken by her mother to hospital in late August, after discovering she was pregnant. There, the mothers told medical staff that her daughter had been raped, was pregnant, and wanted an abortion. With strict exceptions (which are nonetheless open to interpretation) abortion is illegal in Argentina. So the doctors sent the matter to a judge to consider.

Article 86 of Argentina’s penal code says that abortion is illegal and cannot be performed unless (a) it’s necessary to avoid placing the mother’s life or health in danger or (b) the pregnancy is the result of a rape or an “assault on the purity” of a female who is mentally retarded or an “idiot.” This translation is direct and the statute’s antiquated language is evident. The first exception is clearly open to interpretation by doctors (for example – does the mother’s health include her mental health?), while the second is open to plenty of confusion. Does it say that abortion can be legally performed on any woman whose pregnancy is the result of rape, as well as on any woman whose mental condition places in doubt her capacity to consent to sex and/or raise a child? Or does clause B simply offer two ways of describing a rape, creating an exception only for raped/seduced women of diminished mental capacity?

In any case, it’s for the doctor to decide, and if the doctor sees fit, the abortion under these exceptions can be performed without referring the case to a judge.

Well, the judge in Mendoza decided that while he decided what to do, the child should be held at the hospital, and denied access to her mother, who he thought would unduly influence her in favour of the abortion. Meanwhile, the child received an unexpected visit from anti-abortion activists who showed her gorey pictures of aborted foetuses, begged her to go through with the pregnancy, and even offered the family (the girl and her family are very poor) money if the girl would agree to bear the child.

By the time the judge came to deliver his decision, the girl declared she no longer wanted an abortion.

Photo from Critical Digital

Photo of a random pregnant belly from Critica Digital - this is not a photo of the girl in the story

The case has opened up debate in this country, where teenage pregnancies are common and sex education patchy. Some 15 percent of births registered in 2005 were to mothers aged between 15 and 19, and more than 3000 babies are born each year to mothers under the age of 14. A study by the Argentine Society for Paediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology showed 34 percent of female teenage respondents didn’t use any contraceptive method the first time they had sex, while 7 percent opted for the dicey withdrawal method.

Virtually banned by the dictatorship and still opposed by the church (most Argentines are Catholic), sex education has been slow to arrive in Argentina. Only in 2006 did congress pass a law enforcing all schools to follow an established sex education curriculum – but the curriculum has not yet been established and the church is still claiming the right to teach about sex as it sees fit in Catholic schools.

But while abortion is banned, it’s readily available. Those who can afford an abortion can easily access a safe, albeit illegal one at a private clinic, while the poor are forced to opt for dangerous, unsanitary procedures. Around 500,000 abortions are performed in Argentina each year, while around 750,000 babies are born each year – that’s 1.5 babies for every abortion. Meanwhile, each day, 188 women are treated at public hospitals for complications arising from abortion procedures. It’s estimated that 20 Argentine women die for every 100,000 abortions performed (or roughly 100 women per year). To put these figures in context, Argentina has a total population of around 38 million – which, at a guess, includes under 9 million fertile women.

Last year, members of congress forming part of the “National Campaign for the Right to a Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion” presented a bill that would decriminalise the procedure (making it unpunishable in private clinics) as well as legalise it (making it permissible – and free- in public hospitals). The president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has said “I’ve always been against abortion,” but added “I don’t think that those who lobby for the decriminalisation of abortion are in favour of abortion itself – that would be a simplification.”

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Only one in ten Argentines is a non-believer

A survey by Argentina’s leading research and statistics agency, CONICET, shows that of the nine in ten Argentines who do believe, seven are Catholics, one is an evangelical Christian and other is either Jewish, Muslim, “spiritualist” or of some other creed. This is bad news for the Vatican – in 1960 just over 90% of Argentines said they were Catholics, and it’s partly the growth of evangelical churches that has driven that number down to around 75% today.

In the list of preferred deities and semi-deities, Jesus comes out on top (92% say he’s the favourite), followed by the Holy Spirit (85%), with the Virgin Mary (80%) taking bronze.

78% say they believe in angels, and 76% in saints. 64% believe in “energy,” while 39% believe in psychics, spiritual healers and quacks.

Gauchito Gil - an anauthorised Argentine saint

Gauchito Gil - an anauthorised Argentine saint

Disappointingly, the survey does not mention popular home-grown figures of worship like Gauchito Gil (a kind of real-life cowboy with a mix of saint, Ned Kelly and Robin Hood whose roadside shrines are festooned with red flags) and Difunta Correa (embodiment of assorted female archetypes who died searching for her man, while her baby survived by suckling at her miraculously full breast – she prefers offerings of plastic water bottles).

It has to be said that the survey’s results bear out the old theory that religion is just a crutch. Some 60% said they commune with their deity when they’re suffering or in need, while only 10% turn to god when happy and only 12% in order to ponder the meaning of life.

The prominence of the Catholic Church in Argentine culture is visible everywhere – from the church that overlooks the plaza of every small town to the holy cards flapping away on taxi drivers’ rear-view mirrors to the people who cross themselves every time their bus passes a church. But only 24% of those surveyed (the sample group comprised 2,403 adults) said they attend religious services with any frequency.

Interestingly, the survey found that evangelical Christians are more anti-abortion than Catholics. While 64% of Catholics believe abortion should be allowed under some circumstances, only 48% of born-agains agree. Among evangelicals, 37% think it should be banned in all cases, while only 17% of Catholics take the hard line. In Argentina, abortion is illegal (though easily accessed if you can pay, and quite common) except in cases where a mentally incapacitated woman has been raped. That’s correct – if you’re pregnant as a result of rape, you can only have an abortion if you’re mentally disabled. Otherwise you have to have the baby whether you like it or not.