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.”

Abuelas identify missing grandchild No 93

Last Friday, the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (or Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, named for their silent marches around Argentina’s most famous square, protesting the disappearance of their grandchildren during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship) announced that another child of the disappeared had been identified.

This is the 93rd “grandchild” to have been identified through a combination of forensics and DNA identification since the Grandmothers began their campaign to “recuperate” all of the children who disappeared during the dictatorship.

When pregnant women were captured and imprisoned in the many clandestine detention centres operated by the military and police, or when female prisoners fell pregnant during their detainment, they were allowed to give birth before being executed – often by being drugged then thrown from planes into the sea in what have become knows as the “death flights.”

In the case of grandchild No 93, the woman in question was not seeking to discover her identity. Instead, the Abuelas provided the court with sufficient evidence to suggest she was a child of the disappeared, and the judge, in what is a relatively new and highly controversial measure, ordered that her DNA be gathered by collecting personal objects like drinking glasses, hair combs and toothbrushes. The National Gene Databank then analysed the material and found a match. The woman, whose name is Alejandra, has declined to meet her biological family.

Alejandra’s biological mother was 19 years old and a member of the Montonero guerrilla movement when she was kidnapped by the military in 1977. Her father, also a Montonero, was kidnapped at the same time. Neither of them was ever seen again. The remaining members of Alejandra’s family are hoping she will come to seek a connection with them.

The dictatorship, also known as Argentina’s Dirty War, saw the military fight leftist guerrillas, or revolutionary terrorists – but also various kinds of non-violent opposition – by way of extra-judicial imprisonment, torture and execution. While these facts are broadly known, the policy of illegal adoption is something that fewer outside Argentina are aware of.

In a sinister twist on what many now judge to have been a brutal campaign of ideological cleansing, the newborn babies of the disappeared were illegally or informally adopted by families loyal to or connected with the military, who raised them as their own, free of the “subversive” tendencies displayed by their true parents. Some were even raised by those involved in the torture and killing of their parents. The Abuelas believe there are up to 400 people who still don’t know their true identity as children of the disappeared.

The Abuelas’ campaign to recover their grandchildren, or at least to restore to them their true identity, became an important part of the campaign by human rights activists after the return of democracy. Unlike its neighbours, Argentina has sought to try its military leaders for crimes against humanity. The first post-Dirty War government, headed by President Raúl Alfonsín, set up an inquiry into the disappeared (which concluded that there had been at least 30,000 people murdered by the dictatorship, a far greater toll than any other Southern American country suffered) and the courts began to try the military officials responsible. Under immense political and military pressure, Alfonsín later limited the trials to the upper ranks of the military, and placed a deadline by which all cases were to be presented to court. When Carlos Menem won the presidency in 1989, a full amnesty was offered to both the military and those former guerrillas accused of terrorism.

It was under this amnesty that the Abuelas’ campaign became particularly important for human rights activists, as the illegal adoption or misappropriation of babies was not a crime that came under the amnesty. By proceeding with their investigations, the Abuelas could bring members of the military involved in the misappropriation of babies to trial.

When Néstor Kirchner became president in 2003, he revoked Menem’s amnesty, and since then the government (Néstor’s wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is the current president) has strongly supported both the Abuelas and their sister organization, Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) and has encouraged the courts to bring former military officials to justice.

In a landmark case earlier this year, 30-year-old Maria Eugenia Sampallo Barragán pressed charges against her adoptive parents for falsifying adoption documents and concealing her true identity. Her adoptive parents were sentenced to several years in prison.

Another case that came to light this year saw a brother and sister discover their younger sister. The two eldest siblings had been imprisoned in the infamous Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA (recently declared a National Monument and soon to become a public museum), with their parents – the brother, Marcelo Ruiz Dameri, was 5 years old and his sister Maria 3 years old. Their mother gave birth in the ESMA, after which the two elder children were abandoned at separate orphanages in distant parts of the country, while their baby sister was adopted by a military family. The younger sister, like Alejandra, was unwilling to give her DNA (which was gathered by way of a judicial warrant), and has not yet sought a relationship with her biological siblings.

The Navy Mechanics School, or ESMA (Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada)

The Navy Mechanics School, or ESMA (Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada)