‘Maternity jail’: Women in Argentina and the US find ways around restrictive abortion laws

 
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Joanna, 27, a mom and a university student in Buenos Aires, Argentina, couldn’t imagine having to raise a third child. She’s spread thin as it is.

So, when she found out she was pregnant again this past spring, she thought long and hard about what to do. It wasn’t easy, but she decided to get an abortion.

That’s what brings her to Casa Fusa, a small clinic tucked away on a busy street near downtown on a sunny May afternoon.

“I’m nervous, but I’m quite sure about what I’m doing. So, that helps me to stay calm,” Joanna said from the brightly lit waiting room.

We’re not using Joanna’s full name for security reasons. Argentina has strict laws against abortion, which is banned with only a few exceptions. It has led many women to seek out clandestine abortions. But a movement to decriminalize abortion has gained traction in the predominantly Catholic country in recent years.

Related: Legal abortions remain elusive in Argentina, especially for the most vulnerable

Abortion has recently resurfaced as a hot button issue around the world: Last May, Ireland voted to repeal abortion restrictions. In April of this year, the Rwandan president pardoned 367 women imprisoned for abortion. But in Italy, where abortion is legal, most doctors refuse to perform them. And this telemedical service based in the Netherlands helps women around the world who cannot access abortion services.

By contrast, abortion has been legal in the US for decades. However, several states have recently banned abortion or made the procedure harder to access.

In fact, there has been such a groundswell, the dress worn by characters in “The Handmaid's Tale” has become a symbol for reproductive rights, with women donning the iconic scarlet cloak and white bonnet outfit at rallies worldwide. The novel, and recent TV series based on it, explores what happens when far-right, Christian extremism takes hold in the newly formed, totalitarian society of Gilead, formerly the United States, and forces women into child-bearing servitude.

Overwhelming news

When Joanna found out she was pregnant in April, she called a consejería, a local crisis hotline for women.

“My main goal was to go somewhere where they wouldn’t judge me, and where they wouldn’t waste my time. Because I knew I had to act fast,” she said.

They gave her information about where to get pills — misoprostol — to end her pregnancy and what would happen after taking them.

Joanna followed the instructions. She says she got nauseous, weak and feverish, but the pregnancy didn’t end. She was scared and came to this clinic for help. They charge about $250 for a surgical abortion. Joanna says she’s not ready to take care of another child.

“I already have two children, and I don’t want more. I’m good with the way things are. Plus, I’m very focused on my studies and getting a degree. So, this wasn’t planned. The first thing I thought was that I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t face this situation right now.”

Joanna, Buenos Aires, Argentina

“I already have two children, and I don’t want more. I’m good with the way things are. Plus, I’m very focused on my studies and getting a degree. So, this wasn’t planned. The first thing I thought was that I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t face this situation right now.”

In Argentina, abortion is illegal — except in cases of rape, incest and when a woman’s life is in danger. Still, there are ways to get around the law.

doctor

Virginia Braga (left) is a psychologist at the Casa Fusa clinic in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She screens people to see if they can get an abortion under the ILE Protocol.

Credit:

Florencia Trincheri/The World

Virginia Braga is a psychologist at the Casa Fusa clinic. “We think that if a woman doesn't want to keep the pregnancy, she's in danger if you don't help her.”

Braga says the fact that Joanna says she’s unable to care for another child means having the baby would put her at risk. So, under the law, Joanna can get what’s known as an ILE Protocol, a legal interruption of a pregnancy.

“Yes. So, Article 86 of the penal code in Argentina says the abortion can be legal.”

Braga explains that the law allows providers to consider the whole picture of a woman’s health.

“So, it's mental health, social health and it's physical health, too,” Braga said.

But she says not all providers interpret the law this way.

In fact, just across town at Sanatorio Municipal Dr. Julio Méndez, a large public hospital, the chief physician, Dr. Eda Ebad Monetti, says she wouldn’t perform an abortion.

Dr. Monetti’s office is a light-filled space decorated with saints and a crucifixion cross on the wall. She wears a necklace with a string of medals devoted to various saints. She’s Catholic, devout, and very much against abortion.

“If you kill a teenager, what you’re killing is a future adult who might be a great father or mother or a scientist that develops a cure for cancer. The same is true for that cell egg; what you’re killing is a human being that is going to be someone someday.”

Dr. Eda Ebad Monetti, Buenos Aires, Argentina

“If you kill a teenager, what you’re killing is a future adult who might be a great father or mother or a scientist that develops a cure for cancer. The same is true for that cell egg; what you’re killing is a human being that is going to be someone someday.”

doctor

Dr. Eda Ebad Monetti is the head physician at Sanatorio Municipal Dr. Julio Méndez. She's against abortion and doctors at her hospital have refused to perform them, even in cases of rape or when a woman's life is in danger. In extreme situations like that, they refer the woman to another hospital or doctor.

Credit:

Florencia Trincheri/The World

At Julio Méndez, the doctors have conscientiously objected to doing abortions — even in the case of rape or when a woman will die as a result of pregnancy. In extreme situations like those, Dr. Monetti says to comply with the law, they refer women to other hospitals or other doctors who will perform abortions.

The push for abortion rights in Argentina

In Argentina, abortion has been criminalized for more than 100 years. In 1921, the law was amended, allowing for exceptions to be made when a mother’s life is at risk or when a woman has been the victim of rape or incest.

Estela Soaje, a doctor who works at a government-run clinic in Lomas de Zamora, a small suburb outside of Buenos Aires, wants to see abortion legalized.

“Women in Argentina are in a ‘maternity jail.’ They might not want to have such a large family, and they don’t even think abortion might be an option for them. That’s why we are fighting for a legal abortion.”

Estela Soaje, doctor, Lomas de Zamora clinic

“Women in Argentina are in a ‘maternity jail.’ They might not want to have such a large family, and they don’t even think abortion might be an option for them. That’s why we are fighting for a legal abortion,” Soaje said.

clinic

Estela Soaje (right) and Marcela Lacomo work at a government-run clinic in Lomas de Zamora, a suburb outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina. They see hundreds of women every week for health checkups, exams and abortions.

Credit:

Florencia Trincheri/The World

The color green has become associated with the abortion rights movement in Argentina. Thousands of abortion rights activists with green scarves tied to their backpacks and around their wrists could be seen marching and chanting on the streets of Buenos Aires last year as Congress debated a bill decriminalizing abortion. It didn’t pass.

Virginia Braga

Virginia Braga is a psychologist at the Casa Fusa clinic. The green scarf on her backpack shows that she's an advocate for abortion rights.

Credit:

Florencia Tricheri/The World

Related: Italian cities 'turn back the clock' on women’s reproductive rights

Men and women on the other side of the debate celebrated the decision. They were out in the street waving blue scarves with the slogan, “Save both lives.”

Guadalupe Batallán is a young activist with the group Defensores de Mamás or Defenders of Mothers, known to carry blue handkerchiefs. Batallán doesn’t believe that Argentine Congress even had the right to debate the issue.

“This debate was not in the constitution,” Batallán said in Spanish from the Defensores de Mamás office. “We are not allowed to debate what is already a law. For that, we would have to change the law.”

campaigners

Inés Pfister and Guadalupe Batallán are with Defensores de Mamás, a group that supports the Save Two Lives campaign. Both are young campaigners for the cause and think that abortion should remain criminalized. They think abortions should be illegal, no matter what.

Credit:

Florencia Trincheri/The World

Speaking up for choice

More broadly, abortion has been a polarizing issue across the globe, including the United States, particularly in the South. Some US states, like Arkansas, have long chipped away at Roe v. Wade, the landmark case protecting a woman’s right to abortion.

Arkansas state Rep. Dan Douglas, who is anti-abortion, was recently the only Republican in the state to vote against a trigger ban that would outlaw abortion — even in the case of rape or when a woman's life is in danger — if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Despite Douglas’ objections, it passed.

Douglas had testified from personal experience: “I am pro-life, but I'm also pro-humanity. And I recounted a situation in which my niece went through a very difficult situation. At around 20 weeks, they found out there was a lethal, fatal anomaly in taking care of the baby to term or and whenever it was born,” he said. “[The baby] might live two to three, maybe four days, but [it would] be a very miserable, excruciating painful three or four days [for the baby]. And on the doctor's advice, they chose to terminate the pregnancy; under this trigger ban, that would not be allowed.”

Dan Douglas

Dan Douglas is a representative for House District 91 in Arkansas. Despite being anti-abortion, he voted against a trigger ban because he thinks if there is a lethal fetal anamoly, women should be able to terminate their pregnancy.

Credit:

Allison Herrera/The World

Arkansas passed other abortion-related bills during the 2019 session, as well. They increased the waiting period for when a woman can get an abortion from 48 hours to 72 hours. Under a new law, only an OB-GYN can perform abortions (as opposed to a wider pool of doctors and practitioners) — even when dispensing pills for a medical abortion, and Arkansas has also banned abortions after 18 weeks.

Holly Dickson, the executive director of the Arkansas ACLU, says these new laws, if they take effect, are just as dangerous as Georgia’s or Alabama’s outright bans on abortion.

“I've been watching the Arkansas Legislature and its bills very closely for the 12 years that I've been here on staff, and there's always a slew of bills related to abortion,” she said from the organization’s Little Rock office. “It astounds me that they can come up with more and more legislation [against abortion] to run because they have regulated it up one side and down the other.”

Holly Dickson

Holly Dickson is the legal director for the ACLU in Little Rock, Arkansas. She's been working there for 12 years and during that time, she says the state Legislature has chipped away at abortion access, little by little.

Credit:

Allison Herrera/The World

Dickson explained that the state had a 12-week ban on abortions put in place in 2013 — the strictest law in the nation at the time — but it was struck down by a federal appeals court in 2015.

Dickson says she worries about state laws taking away access to abortion, little by little.

“You know, I mean, my entire life I've heard about Roe v. Wade and whether we ought to overturn Roe v. Wade. And I don't think we as a nation, together, [have] done the deep thinking behind what that really means.”

Holly Dickson, executive director of the Arkansas ACLU

“You know, I mean, my entire life I've heard about Roe v. Wade and whether we ought to overturn Roe v. Wade. And I don't think we as a nation, together, [have] done the deep thinking behind what that really means.”

Dickson rejects the notion that abortion isn’t a human right and that the law can be easily overturned because it’s not protected in the Constitution.

“So, we really don't have an appreciation for what it means to live in a country that doesn't have these protections. And I do understand people say, ‘Well, where's the right to abortion in the Constitution? Where's the right to privacy? I don't see that.’ You know what else is not in the Constitution? The right to vote,” she said. “We have more amendments to the Constitution that protect the right to vote in various ways. But if you go back and read it, there's nothing expressly in the US Constitution that says Americans have the right to vote. So that argument is a very simple one, but it also has no heft to it whatsoever.”

Back at Casa Fusa in Buenos Aires, Joanna sits in the waiting room with her mother, ready to go home.

She says at first, she had second thoughts about getting an abortion, but she’s relieved she went ahead with it.

“I feel like I have to make a huge effort to overcome the nagging question, 'Is it OK that I’m doing this?' Even though I am certain this is the right thing for me.”

“I am confident about my decision to go through with this procedure. It’s too bad that we can’t talk openly about this in the society we live in.”

Joanna, Buenos Aires, Argentina

“I am confident about my decision to go through with this procedure. It’s too bad that we can’t talk openly about this in the society we live in.”

To get the time off work, Joanna told her boss she was going to the dentist. She says her co-workers wouldn’t have approved. But she’s grateful that she had a support network that helped her get here — and get around the law.

Funding for this reporting was provided by the International Women's Media Foundation.

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