During her marathon speech before Congress on 1st March, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner covered nearly every hot topic in the public agenda, but failed to mention abortion. Despite this, Marta Alanís seems confident that this “year Argentina will finally decriminalise abortion once for all.”
Alanís, 61, is one of the many unknown faces carrying on the civil struggle for legal abortion in Argentina. She leads the NGO Catholic Women for the Right of Free Choice (CDD) and is one of the engines of the National Campaign for Abortion Rights, a network of over 250 organisations lobbying Congress to pass a bill authorising legal abortion in the country.
When last January an 11-year-old girl was forced to carry on with her unexpected pregnancy – despite experts’ warnings of severe health concerns for the adolescent – Alanís asked to formally meet with the Argentine Health Minister, Juan Luis Manzur, along with the members of the National Advisory Board of Sexual Health and Responsible Procreation, of which she is also a leading figure.
“We are indignant as this is a humanitarian issue. The Minister asked for public silence and, even worse, stayed silent in such delicate case, so we asked for a public audience to get to talk with him,” Mrs. Alanis says.
The recent case that angered campaigners for legal abortion is that of an 11-year-old girl from General Campos – a town of 3,000 inhabitants in Entre Rios province – who became pregnant after being abused by a 17-year-old relative.
Faced with the mother’s request for a lawful abortion for her young daughter, the director of the nearby San Salvador hospital, Juan Alretaz, advised the woman to file a police report and to seek legal permission for the abortion from a judge.
The mother did as she was told, but subsequently changed her mind after a private talk with the judge in charge of the case, Raul Tomaselli. Local campaigners for the right to legal abortion denounced that the “mother of the girl was intimidated, pressured, manipulated to withdraw her request for the termination of pregnancy.”
In the days prior, the health minister of Entre Rios, Hugo Cettour, declared that the case did not qualify for legal abortion and the 11-year-old girl could carry on with her pregnancy “according to the principle of wise naturalness: once a girl begins to menstruate, then her body is ready for a pregnancy.”
On a national level, though, very few members of the government took a public stance the issue. “We wanted the health minister [Manzur] to have an active role in the issue. He has but a symbolic power; yet, his words would have had a real authority in such delicate issue,” Alanís reckons.
“We want dialogue. If the minister won’t receive us, we will be forced to start a harsher confrontation, possibly by suing him for failing to comply with his duties as a civil servant.”
This directness is one of Alanís’ qualities. As she gets more involved in the conversation, she puts aside the note pad where she had previously written down a few things to say and starts explaining things off-the-cuff, like a mother telling a story to a young child.
“What happened here is pretty simple. In case of rape, the doctor is the one who has the last say on whether to interrupt the pregnancy. He should not seek judiciary approval or ask for the bioethical commission’s support. He simply has to do it, especially when we are talking about an 11-year-old child being raped,” she explains.
“Secondly, the dialogue between the poor mother and the powerful judge was not a dialogue inter pares: one part was clearly more powerful and influential than the other.”
Alanís also denounced an alleged removal of a protocol listing guidelines for victims of a rape from the official web page of health ministry. Her National Advisory Board of Sexual Health and Responsible Procreation helped to compile it. “It happened as soon as the case of the 11-years old child got in the public eye,” she points out.
The saga of the 11-year-old is an extreme example, but Argentina has already seen similar, controversial cases. In March last year, judges in Chubut Province refused to grant two 15-year-old girls, who had reportedly been raped by their stepfathers, the permission to obtain a legal abortion.
It is estimated that in Argentina around 100 women die each year from complications caused by unsafe abortions. It is the number one cause of maternal death in Argentina, as procedures are often clandestine. A report by the US-based Guttmacher published last year that 95% of abortions in Latin America are in fact unsafe.
Yet, article 86 of Argentina’s Penal Code still defines abortion as a crime, and women can be imprisoned if caught. The only two exceptions to the rule cases are either when the woman’s life or health is in danger, or if the pregnancy is the product of a rape of an ‘idiot or demented woman’ (una mujer idiota o demente).
Referring to the uncertain legal frame surrounding the case, Alanís indicates the way for the civil struggle. “We think the debate should focus not on correcting article 86 of the penal code but on decriminalising and legalising abortion. This will help to get over judges’ negligence, lawyers acting in bad faith, and doctors’ ignorance of the law.”
It may seems a paradox, but Alanís, married for 41 years already and mother of four children, still refuses to define herself as ‘pro abortion’.
“There is no such a thing as anti/pro abortion campaigners,” she says. “We don’t want abortion in the society, but there is nothing we can do but accept it.”
The case of the 11-year-old girl highlighted all the difficulties on the path towards the legalisation of abortion. Last November, before summer holidays, Congress debated two bills regarding decriminalising abortion totally or partially. The Criminal Law Commission of the Chamber of Deputies expressed a favorable predictamen proposing the legalisation of abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, even though only six members out of 31 voted in favour.
“People in Argentina are ready for such a law. Ibarometro in January published a study showing that the vast majority of people were in favor of legal abortion in the case of the 11-year old child,” Alanís points out. “I hope this year will finally be the right one for legalising abortion. We have still a long way to go, but we must remember that in no country good laws were all passed simultaneously.
“The President already said that she won’t veto a law approved by the Congress: now it’s up to us to do what we can to put the debate in the public opinion and make it a top priority for the Congress. Everyone has to do his part.”