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‘My body, my choice’: Argentina moves closer to legal abortion with key vote

Category: Gender in the world 
2018-06-13

Even as calls for women in Argentina to be given the legal right to abortion have grown louder on its cities’ streets, a change in the law had seemed unlikely – until now.

But a vote on abortion on Wednesday could transform Pope Francis’s homeland from a country where women can go to jail for having an unlawful termination to one of Latin America’s most progressive countries on reproductive rights.

The chamber of deputies will be voting on the abortion bill, which would legalise elective abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, although, if it passes, no date has been set for its consideration in the upper house.

The first Monday of June marked the last march, in a rainy Buenos Aires, before the crucial vote. Led by Ni Una Menos, (Not One Less), a movement that began in 2015 as a protest against femicide, women of all ages marched in signature green bandanas under a sea of umbrellas. Amid a cacophony of drums, their chants lamented the Catholic church, denounced “slut-shaming” and called for the end to violence against women. Among the placards, one read: “El machismo mata”, or “machismo kills.”


Such protests have contributed to a shift in public opinion in the traditionally conservative country where the president, Mauricio Macri, said recently that – despite his own opposition to abortion – he would not veto a vote in congress to relax legislation. Argentina has very restrictive abortion laws. Even when it is deemed lawful – in the case of rape, or when a woman’s life is in danger – doctors are often unwilling to proceed with a termination for fear of prosecution, and stigma persists.

“I had my first abortion when I was 17; the second 10 years later,” says Nadia Karenina, 29, a protester. “Both pregnancies were accidental and during stable relationships. People in Argentina are starting to recognise the importance of sex education, but there’s still a lot of prejudice against abortion.”


Now an artist and sex worker, Karenina was marching behind a banner that read: “Sex workers abort too.”


Later, at her home in the suburb of Villa Pueyrredón, where she lives with eight other writers and artists, she recalled her first pregnancy, saying: “Many people think you can’t get pregnant if you have sex on your period. At 17, I didn’t know that [you could]. I remember my period was late. I had to go to school, but pretended I was ill. The doctor did a blood test – that’s how I found out [I was pregnant].

 

“I went to a gynaecologist with my abuela – my grandmother,” she says. “And then I told my mother, who helped me find out how get an abortion. She never pressured me into anything; I was always convinced I never wanted to be a mother.

“We soon learned that misoprostol – a drug to treat stomach ulcers – could cause abortion. It wasn’t widely available then, but we managed to get our hands on it. Nowadays the pills are available on prescription, but everyone in the pharmacy knows they are for abortions. Without proper medical guidance, I didn’t take the pills correctly. Twelve pills are supposed to be taken at intervals; you have to take them all but I stopped when I was bleeding thinking I’d had enough.”


Her abortion was incomplete – a common complication that can cause septicaemia. Karenina admitted herself to hospital. “The way the medical professionals treated me there was humiliating,” she says. “They said things like: ‘maybe you shouldn’t have opened your legs’.”

She was discharged and given more pills to complete the abortion at home because it was illegal for her to take them in the clinic.

“The second time was much safer as I knew what to expect,” she says. “I took the misoprostol at my partner’s home and had no adverse side-effects.”


She says: “I knew I wanted to have an abortion. I didn’t want to be a mother then and I feel the same way now.”


  
Bianchi remembers her boyfriend scouring the internet in search of a safe solution. “At one point we considered travelling to Uruguay,” she says. Her mother-in-law recommended an obstetrician who was pro-choice. “He informed us of our options, confidentially – and found us a trustworthy surgeon. The conditions in the clinic were good, and my parents helped us pay the bill.


“I was really scared about the possibility of complications, but in the end the whole thing went smoothly; I just felt really uncomfortable about having to hide it.”

At her apartment, with her dog wearing her green bandana, 35-year-old Sofia Pérez* said she wished she did not have to keep her abortion secret. “I’d rather be open about my abortion, but I don’t know exactly what could happen,” she says, “beyond any charges I could face, there’s the stigma that I’d have to deal with at work. I’m not ready for that.”

 

Pérez had an abortion at 31: “I often argued with the guy I was seeing because he refused to use condoms and wanted me to take the morning-after pill. It made me feel ill, but I took it anyway. Then one time it didn’t work.

“When I told him about the pregnancy he was like ‘well … there is a solution’ – as if it were that easy. He wanted me to take misoprostol, though I didn’t want to do that as I’d heard about the risk of septicaemia. He then disappeared.”


“Fortunately, all the women in my family supported my decision to abort. My gynaecologist was also an obstetrician and pro-life, so my abortion was carried out by a doctor recommended by a friend of my mum. It was a normal gynaecological clinic in an affluent neighbourhood – not an illegal one.

“The first thing the doctor said was, ‘you can’t talk about this with anyone, you can’t text with anyone about me, or by email – you can’t ever mention me’. I felt like a criminal and I think that’s what shocked me the most.”
 

Pérez believes the abortion bill is a positive step, but that stigma would not disappear overnight. “Even if [the bill] passes, obstetricians who are against it won’t make it easy. I have lost friends because of my abortion.

“Even among my female colleagues, you encounter many machistas [male chauvinists],” she says. This type of machismo is harder to assuage because it seems moderate compared with physical violence you might encounter in poor areas.”


 
Access to abortion is hardest for poor women living in more conservative provinces. Complications related to clandestine abortions are the main cause of death among pregnant women in 17 out of 24 of Argentine provinces, according to Amnesty International.

“Sometimes it feels like this is holding Argentina back as a country,” says Pérez. “My partner and I have been considering moving elsewhere, but it’s not easy, it’s harder to take such a massive leap of faith.”

She adds: “I’m proud of the Ni Una Menos movement, though, and I hope it will create change this country so desperately needs.”


 

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