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reader diary by DeniseHirao [1], International Women’s Health Coalition

July 18, 2011

When LMR got pregnant after being raped by a relative, she was 19 years-old and had a mental disability that limited her understanding to that of an 8-10 year-old child. She lived with her mother, Vicenta, in very poor conditions in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Vicenta requested an abortion for her daughter based on the Argentinean legislation that punishes abortion in most circumstances but not in cases of rape of a woman with mental disability. Despite multiple attempts with the support of women rights advocates, which obtained a favorable decision by the Buenos Aires Supreme Court, LMR was not able to have an abortion at the public health system. She ultimately terminated the pregnancy at a clandestine practice.

This case was presented to the UN Human Rights Committee by Argentinean organizations INSGENAR – Instituto de Género, Derecho y Desarrollo [10], Catholics for the Right to Decide-Córdob [11]a, and CLADEM-Argentina [12]. The Committee issued a groundbreaking decision [13] in late April, concluding that the facts amounted to physical and moral suffering that violates article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee also concluded that there were violations to the right to privacy and equality between men and women. This would be a matter of gender equality because only women are vulnerable to this type of human rights violations, as only women can get pregnant.

According to Susana Chiarotti, executive director of INSGENAR, “LMR was denied a legal remedy and she and her family have been submitted to intensive pressure in order to carry on the pregnancy and give the newborn in adoption”.  Ms. Chiarotti knows well the human rights violations that occur within the Argentinean public health system. For 6 years, she led awatchdog [14] on health, gender and human rights, which identified practices that did not comply with human rights standards and advocated for their suppression. For example, post-abortion scrapping procedures without anesthesia, which were common in the province of Santa Fe as a type of informal punishment, were abolished by the local government after INSGENAR’s interventions.

Apart from being called to uphold human rights standards at the local level, Argentina is now on the international spotlight for not having ensured the rights of LMR. The UN Human Rights Committee urged Argentina to take measures to compensate LMR and to prevent similar cases from happening in the future. The state has now 180 days to report such measures to the Committee.

Argentina is in a good position to not only avoid international shame, but show its role as a leading developing nation that respects women´s human rights. The Government has already produced technical guidelines to ensure access to abortion services in the cases allowed by the law and should now take concrete steps to implement them. These guidelines, which include provisions to ensure that women have access to abortion services without having to recur to the Judiciary, should be converted into a binding protocol, Argentina should also recognize the input of women´s organizations and formally include them in shaping the process to implement these measures.

These measures, albeit essential, will not fully address all the problems surrounding access to safe abortion in Argentina. A study conducted by CEDES between 2002 and 2003 in six Argentinean provinces concluded that abortion constitutes the first cause of maternal mortality (27.4%). A report by Human Rights Watch [15] offers more information on access to safe abortion as a human rights matter in Argentina. Therefore, apart from being essential to ensure a woman´s human rights, decriminalizing abortion is a key step to prevent maternal mortality and morbidity. As it is inferred from the Committee´s conclusions, it is also a matter of equality between men and women.

Argentina should thus pass a bill decriminalizing abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy, which is currently under discussion in Congress. This would make Argentina the first Spanish-speaking Latin American country after Cuba and Puerto Rico to decriminalize abortion. It would be a strong symbol of the prevalence of women´s rights in a country currently led by a female President.