Argentina must legalize abortion so doctors like me don’t have to choose between helping or going to prison
I am a Catholic doctor, mother of four and a conscientious objector to abortion who has been trying to reconcile her religious views with public health needs. Because the reality that I see every day is that all women have abortions. The married woman and the single one, the Catholic, the Jewish, the atheist. Women who do not use birth control and those whose birth control has failed them. Illiterate women and those with college degrees.
The difference, however, is in the conditions under which they have abortions. That’s always defined by their economic status.
I live in Tucumán, an Argentine province proudly designated pro-life by its legislature, where more than 40 percent of people live under the poverty line. It is a place where women’s reproductive rights don’t exist uniformly and where there are no protocols for the legal interruption of pregnancy. In other words, it is a region that denies women all the tools for their advancement: It denies them education, contraception and, when they get pregnant unintentionally, they are denied legal abortion, including raped girls.
Here we had the case of Belén, a woman who was imprisoned for 29 months for having a miscarriage in 2014. Her story was published in the book “We Are All Belén,” by Ana Elena Correa. But of course we are not all Belén, because only the poor go to jail.
That’s what I’ve seen during my career. I’ve had my private practice for 16 years, and I have never called the police once. But in a public hospital I have to see patients with a police officer next to me.
I’ve also been part of the problem — a problem that today I want to help fix. I exercised obstetric violence against women who were under my care in the public health system. I abused my power and exposed them to the authorities, judging them or questioning them in a cruel way. And for that I know that I have no redemption.
Last year I came across the case of “Lucía,” an 11-year-old girl from a rural area of Tucumán who was raped and impregnated by her 65-year-old grandmother’s boyfriend. (The girl’s real name was never released to protect her identity.) When Lucía contacted the provincial health authorities, she said: “I want them to take out what the old man put in me.” But Lucía was in the hospital for a month as health professionals refused to perform an abortion, even though rape is one of the instances where abortion is allowed by the law.
Many doctors said they refused for personal or religious reasons, but the province’s criminal prosecutor had issued an official letter to the hospital banning the abortion. In other words, a girl was being tortured by direct order of the prosecutor’s office. When a family judge ordered the legal interruption of the pregnancy within 48 hours, the province’s Health Ministry had to summon private doctors because nobody wanted to do it in a public facility.
I’m one of the two physicians who was involved in the procedure, and we both still face a criminal investigation for aggravated homicide. Nearly two years after the legal abortion was performed, the provincial government continues to spend public funds on the case against us to send a message to all health-care professionals.
I was not planning to be directly involved with Lucía’s procedure, but I ended up providing medical assistance despite being a conscientious objector to performing abortions. I continue to be a devout Catholic, and my faith remains intact. As I see it, personal beliefs cannot come before the rights of people. If a doctor is unwilling to comply with the law, he or she cannot practice this profession.
A few days ago I spoke with Lucía, the young girl who managed to take control of her body by refusing to be silenced. She screamed until the state and the world heard her. She told me she wanted to send a message to the senators who will be voting Tuesday on a bill to legalize abortion in Argentina: “Tell them that when they say that abortion is not legal, doctors are confused and believe that no abortion is legal and they get angry with us, even if we are minors. Tell them not to waste a single second.”
Educated women speak of glass ceilings, when we cannot access positions of power in companies or public institutions. But poor women, forced to give birth again and again, speak of sticky floors. They dare not even dream of education and quality jobs.
We must legalize abortion. Doctors and pregnant people need clear laws and government regulation. We need to be able to work without fear. But above all, we need to be able to ensure the well-being of all women. Forcing raped girls to give birth is not an innocent act. Not respecting women’s reproductive rights and forcing an outcome by abusing their bodies is not an accident. If we dominate women’s bodies, we dominate their futures.