In Argentina, ‘pro-life’ doctors are a growing force against abortion
As the pro-choice movement edges towards legalization, doctors from the opposing camp are objecting on ‘grounds of conscience’. Ana Ionova reports from the northern province of Salta.
When she speaks about her first clandestine abortion, more than a decade ago, Patricia’s voice trembles as if it happened yesterday. Haunted by a risky and difficult first pregnancy in her youth – and worried a growing family would shackle her to an abusive partner – she had decided she couldn’t have a second child.
She had few options in Argentina, where abortion is illegal in most cases. Unable to afford a safe abortion at a reputable private clinic, Patricia took a dangerous, illegal drug which she thought ended her pregnancy. Months later, she started bleeding heavily.
‘I felt life was abandoning my body,’ she recounted, wiping tears and drawing a long sip of the bitter Argentine tea, yerba mate.
When she arrived at the public hospital in her hometown of Salta – in one of Argentina’s most conservative, religious regions – she says doctors looked at her with disgust and refused to give her enough anesthesia. Patricia waited nearly seven hours to be admitted into surgery.
‘You should be grateful that we’re not reporting you to the police and we’re saving your life,’ Patricia recalls one doctor saying. ‘You should be punished for what you’ve done.’ When a nurse tried to give her food, another doctor said, ‘No food for the abortee. Let her starve.’
In Argentina, where society and politics have long been influenced by heavy-handed Catholicism, women can face up to four years in prison for seeking an illegal abortion. Abortions in cases of rape or risk to the mother’s life have been allowed for nearly a century but, in practice, ending a pregnancy remains difficult even for women who have the law on their side.
Experiences like Patricia’s are especially common in Argentina’s deeply traditional northern provinces, where weekends are marked by ‘gaucho’ cowboy rodeos and the green handkerchief symbolizing the pro-choice movement is a rare sight. It’s a place where one in five girls becomes a mother before finishing her teens and politicians campaign on promises to restore ‘family values’.
Access to abortion has long been notoriously difficult in this region. But this began to change last year. The campaign to fully legalize abortion pushed the subject into the spotlight across Argentina, even in conservative places like Salta. Activists say it helped women understand their rights, access safer abortions and connect with sympathetic doctors.
A high-profile case of a 10-year-old rape victim who was denied a legal abortion in Salta, just as lawmakers were preparing to debate the legalization bill, also put pressure on officials to ease the particularly restrictive local laws that limited how far into a pregnancy women could seek the procedure.
Patricia, now aged 40, felt the shifting climate when she sought a second abortion last year. This time around, she got access to more effective medication and received support from a civil women’s group. At the clean, tidy clinic she visited, doctors treated her with care and respect. ‘I found support, I found empathy. It was a completely different experience.’
But, while the ‘green wave’ opened the door for major advances, it also invigorated the pro-life movement, says Veronica Bisdorff, a feminist and psychologist who is part of Socorro Rosa, a civil network that provides information and support to women who want to end their pregnancies.
‘Now, it’s much easier to access abortions,’ she says. ‘But the main barrier is the fact that doctors who perform abortions – and are respectful of the rights of women – are very few.’
Thousands of women who are turned away from the public health system or who don’t qualify for legal abortions seek to end their unwanted pregnancies anyway, often in shockingly unsafe conditions. There are between 372,000 and 522,000 clandestine abortions in Argentina each year, Amnesty International estimates.
In May 2019, pro-choice groups unveiled a second bill before Congress seeking to legalize abortion up to 14 weeks. As they push to advance the legislation, they worry that the growing movement of ‘objecting’ doctors aligning themselves with the pro-life movement could block advances in abortion rights.
‘Objection of conscience is a real tool for the anti-abortion rights movement,’ said Monica Menini, a feminist lawyer who was involved in drafting the bill. ‘Abortion will be legal in Argentina. But when it is, who are the doctors who will perform it?’
Green versus blue
On a Tuesday evening in May, about a dozen feminist activists were gathered in front of the legislative building in Salta, offering pamphlets, bags of yerba mate, green handkerchiefs and little books of poetry about abortion.
In the fading light, a green graffiti tag reading ‘Aborto Legal’ was still visible on the pale yellow facade of the colonial-style government building across the street. Several activists gave speeches, straining to compete with a far larger demonstration a few feet away, where people voiced frustration about unemployment.
The gathering stood in contrast to the ubiquitous images of millions of marching women, clad in green handkerchiefs, during last year’s attempt to legalise abortion. Despite strong support in Buenos Aires and other liberal provinces, the bill was ultimately defeated – in large part due to staunch resistance from legislators in places like Salta.
Andres Suriani was one such legislator. The deputy from Salta introduces himself as a lawyer, politician, professor and father of five. As he explains his views on abortion, Suriani leans forward on one of the dozens of mahogany desks in Salta’s deputies chamber, where a massive crucifix hangs above the podium. He sees abortion as a tragedy, he says, and last year’s vote showed where the country stands too. ‘Argentines don’t want abortion.’
He doesn’t think there will be support for the new bill either. And, in truth, this fresh attempt to legalize abortion faces yet more hurdles this time around. Unlike a year ago, the pro-choice movement is now jostling for the attention of the Argentinian public as skyrocketing inflation and crippling national debt have taken centre stage ahead of elections in October.
The campaign also faces intensifying opposition from the pro-life movement. Before last year’s debate, there was no organized resistance to the pro-choice movement, says Menini. But in response to surging ‘green’ support for legalization, a ‘blue’ counter-movement was born. In Salta, its embodiment is a new political party called La Celeste, started by Suriani and his allies.
‘I think we are fighting a cultural battle now,’ says Alberto Castillo, a local councilor who helped start La Celeste. ‘If we do not defend the unborn person, the person that is most vulnerable, it is difficult to have an identity as a state or as a country.’
Their movement – known as pañuelo celeste or ‘blue handkerchief’- is helped by medical staff who are claiming objections of conscience and refusing to carry out legal abortions requested by women who have been raped or whose health is threatened by the pregnancy.
Argentinian law mandates that objections of conscience must be individual, meaning that medical institutions must provide at least one doctor willing to perform the abortion. But hospitals in some provinces – including neighbouring Jujuy – have refused to comply with this law, calling on federal lawmakers to allow institutional conscientious objection.
At times, the tactics doctors use to voice their objection go even further. Menini says some will fail to inform patients of their right to a legal abortion or stall the process until the pregnancy is too advanced – practices that are against Argentina’s federal protocol.
In the northern province of Tucuman, pro-life doctors objected when an 11-year-old girl who was raped by her grandmother’s boyfriend wanted to end her pregnancy earlier this year, sparking national outrage. Lucia, as the girl is known, was eventually forced to deliver the un-viable foetus via a cesarean section, after a coercive campaign by the Catholic Church, government officials and doctors.
‘In many cases, they are very vulnerable…they don’t know their rights,’ says Stella Maris Molina, president of the Markani Foundation, a nonprofit that provides legal advice and psychological support to victims of violence and fights to improve access to health services for women in rural and indigenous communities. ‘And the authorities work to guarantee that women will not access legal terminations.’
In other cases, girls and women are bombarded by pro-life groups determined to convince them to prolong the pregnancy. Last year, the 10-year-old girl in Salta was blocked by objecting doctors from ending a pregnancy after she was raped by her stepfather. Eventually, authorities cleared the way for the abortion, but the girl’s family had already been swayed by religious groups to continue the pregnancy.
For women living in remote areas, an ‘objecting doctor’ often means they have to travel to another city for an abortion. Those who can’t afford it often end up continuing the pregnancy or attempting to end it in dangerous ways.
‘Because they are desperate and there’s urgency to get an abortion, these women do not seek safety,’ says Bisdorff. ‘They seek to end their pregnancy fast.’
Molina says many resort to using toxic plants, scissors, catheters and questionable pills peddled on the black market. She has also seen cases where women are beaten in the stomach by their rapists to provoke an abortion.
‘Some of these methods are very aggressive and invasive,’ she says. ‘And, in most cases, they die at home, they don’t go to the hospital because the hospital penalizes them for seeking an abortion.’
Around 49,000 women are hospitalized across the country due to botched abortions every year, the latest available government data shows. In Salta, more women below the age of 25 are hospitalized with complications from clandestine abortions than anywhere else in the country.
Perched on a cabinet in Dr Monica Gelsi’s living room is a doll made in her likeness, wearing scrubs and cradling a baby, amid family photos and a bowl of condoms. She says a patient made the doll for her as a gift, an ode to the 10,000 babies she has helped deliver in nearly four decades as an obstetrician and gynecologist.
Gelsi distinctly remembers the moment her view on abortion changed, some 20 years ago. When a desperately poor patient came begging for an abortion, Gelsi refused. ‘At that time, abortion was unthinkable for me,’ she admits.
After a brief trip outside Salta province, Gelsi returned to work to discover that the woman had died of complications from a clandestine abortion. In her fever and delirium, she had been murmuring ‘Forgive me Dr Gelsi,’ a colleague told her. ‘That’s when I realized: who am I to try to impose my will and force women to be mothers?’
Conversely Gelsi is now one of the pro-life movement’s most prominent speakers and still refuses to perform abortions, although she says she will give women information about their rights, as mandated by Argentina’s ministry of health. ‘When it comes to legalization, I am not in favour,’ she says. ‘If the woman has decided, she has decided. But I could not perform it.’
She says most doctors in the public hospital where she works are conscientious objectors too, while anti-abortion councilor Castillo estimates 80 per cent of doctors in Salta refuse to perform abortions.
Argentina’s moment of reckoning about conscientious objection came in late May, when a court found a physician guilty of breaching his duties as a public official for refusing to carry out an abortion on a rape victim who was five-months pregnant.
The verdict triggered protests in front of Salta’s public hospital, as angry doctors – wearing sky blue handkerchiefs – voiced support for their colleague. ‘For many Argentines, Leandro Rodríguez Lastra is a role model doctor,’ Suriani says. ‘We have him as a hero, because we believe that he saved both lives.’
Pro-choice activists say the unprecedented ruling in the Lastra case could mark a turning point in Argentina, forcing doctors to think twice about blocking women’s access to abortion.
‘It’s an example for all doctors who deny women their rights – so they understand that denying this right is a crime,’ says Irene Cari, president of the Forum of Women for Equality of Opportunity, a nonprofit that works to empower women.
Patricia, meanwhile, hopes that eventually women in Argentina will be able to lean on the public health system without fear of reprisal. ‘I want to know that I won’t die when I go to a public hospital for making a choice not to be a mother.’
This story was supported by a Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice Grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the Women’s Equality Centre.