'Thousands' of young girls denied abortion after rape in Argentina
The lives of thousands of girls in Argentina are being put at risk as legal abortions are delayed and obstructed by doctors trying to force pregnancies to full term.
The issue of anti-choice doctors, medical institutions and government officials deliberately trying to hold up legally sanctioned terminations was brought into sharp focus last week when it emerged that an 11-year-old girl’s baby was born alive because health officials delayed her request for an abortion. The girl had fallen pregnant after being raped by her grandmother’s boyfriend.
A practitioner who assisted in the procedure told the Guardian there were thousands of such cases in Argentina.
Last week, the Guardian reported the story of Lucía – not her real name – who was raped by her grandmother’s 65-year-old partner. She was denied an abortion, despite the law allowing terminations in cases of rape or when the woman’s life is at risk. Despite Lucía qualifying on both accounts, local authorities in the northern province of Tucumán, where she lives, delayed a decision until 23 weeks into her pregnancy.
By that time Lucía was not physically able to undergo a normal, vaginal abortion. Instead she had to undergo what is called a hysterotomy abortion, in which the foetus is removed via a small incision in the abdomen, similar to a caesarean section. Rescued by hospital staff, the foetus survived the procedure but is not expected to live.
Cecilia Ousset, who assisted her husband, Jorge Gijena, in carrying out the procedure, said she was “horrified” by the outcome of the case.
“At no moment was it our intention to force the girl to give [a] live birth,” said Ousset in a phone interview punctuated with tears.
Ousset and her husband are pro-choice private practitioners, called in by the government when the public hospital staff refused to carry out the court-ordered procedure.
Ousset feels they were tricked by a deliberate and ultimately successful ploy by provincial officials to delay the procedure long enough to force the delivery of a live newborn.
According to the latest government figures, 2,493 live births in 2017 were to girls under 15. Many such pregnancies are the result of rape by family members. More than 91,500 births were to girls aged 15 to 19.
The World Health Organization has found that complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the biggest killers of 15- to 19-year-old girls. While no official figures are collected for girls aged under 15, the WHO said mothers aged 10 to 19 face higher risks of eclampsia, puerperal endometritis and systemic infections than women aged 20 to 24.
“Since these births are often the result of sexual abuse, they are detected late, usually when the girl starts complaining of stomach upsets,” says feminist journalist Mariana Carbajal, who first broke Lucía’s story in the progressive daily Página/12. “Doctors regularly fail to inform the victim or the family that they are entitled to a legal abortion in such cases.”
“There is a systematic pattern of violation of the rights of young girls in Argentina,” says Sabrina Cartabia, a lawyer campaigning for legal abortion. “The lack of a national policy makes the process complicated and uneven. It differs in each province, municipality and even from one hospital to another.”
The problem is compounded by the hold of the Catholic church and conservatives who advocate a policy of “save both lives”.
The motto serves as a rallying cry for a growing number of anti-abortion campaigners since Argentina’s congress rejected a bill to legalise abortion last year.
“Anti-choice activists have been emboldened by the failure of the bill to pass and this is particularly noticeable among anti-choice doctors and government officials, who are blocking more and more cases such as Lucía’s, where abortions are legal,” says Cartabia.
In a similar case to Lucía’s, in January, a 12-year-old girl in the northern province of Jujuy became pregnant after being raped, and was denied a termination. Arguing that at 24 weeks it was too late to perform an abortion, governor Gerardo Morales said the girl could undergo a C-section to keep the foetus alive.
Leading Argentine daily La Nación praised the decision with an editorial eulogising child mothers who carry their pregnancy to term while disparaging the girl’s mother for her “criminal intent”. The newborn died shortly afterwards.
Lucía discovered she was 17 weeks pregnant in January. A week later, she was admitted to hospital after an apparent suicide attempt. She, along with her family and women’s rights supporters, requested an abortion.
Court papers show that Lucía had told psychologists: “I want you to remove what the old man put inside me.”
But what followed was a battle between the health and opinion of the child and her parents, and the stance of the local authorities.
The governor of Tucumán, Juan Manzur, is staunchly against abortion. Last year he led a street march against legalisation. Tucumán has declared itself a “pro-life province”.
The courts eventually ordered that Lucía should be allowed an abortion. But hours before the procedure was to take place on 26 February, authorities instead ordered the hospital to “continue with the procedures necessary to attempt to save both lives” – Lucia’s and the foetus.
Manzur denies the charge made by Ousset that she was tricked by provincial officials into delivering a live newborn. “What was done was what the family asked for,” he said in an interview with the daily Clarín.
Lucía was expecting to have an abortion, according to Ousset. “We said, ‘Let’s go,’ and Lucía jumped from her bed, eager to start the procedure.”
But physically, the child was not developed enough for a vaginal abortion to be performed. She weighed less than 50kg and was suffering from hypertension, one of the common causes of maternal deaths among girls.
“A vaginal intervention at 23 weeks is a lengthy procedure. You have to apply different medications during three days. It is also extremely painful. Lucía was in no condition to withstand that,” said Ousset. “The whole case is worse than a horror film.”
Lucía is physically well and is due to be released from hospital on
Abortion remains illegal throughout most of Latin America and the Caribbean. Only Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and México City permit elective abortions. Chile overturned its total ban in 2017.
Argentina’s abortion bill was rejected by the senate in August, the vote decided largely by senators from conservative northern provinces such as Tucumán.
But the green scarf of the pro-abortion movement is still worn by those who have not given up the struggle. Official statistics estimate the number of clandestine abortions at 345,000 every year, despite the threat of a four-year jail term. Women who suffer from complications after clandestine abortions are often too scared to seek medical help. “With the law the way it is, what woman would risk going to a public hospital? They’d rather die first,” said Ousset.