In December 2008 Sophia González sat in an NGO office in one of the large slums surrounding the city of Córdoba in Argentina and described her desperate search for an abortion.
With five young children, no work and her husband gone, she says prostitution is the only way she can afford to buy food for her family. When a violent encounter with a client left her pregnant for the sixth time, she says she had no choice but to try and get a termination. “I don’t believe in abortion but I was terrified,” she says. “I knew there was no way I could get food for this baby, I was all on my own and I was doing what I was doing for the sake of the children I had already. I couldn’t see a way out.”
She borrowed 50 pesos ($13) from neighbours and went to a place where they “know about these things”. The man there used a plastic catheter and a knitting needle. She didn’t have the extra 250 pesos for anaesthetic. “The pain was so bad afterwards I thought I was going to die,” she says.
Despite heavy bleeding she didn’t want to go to the hospital because she was scared she’d be send to prison for having an abortion. In the end her daughter persuaded her to go, something she said probably saved her life. She told me she was one of the lucky ones. “Girls die from abortions all the time,” she says. “But when there is no alternative, what choice for you have?”
Argentina’s strict abortion laws prohibit terminations except when the life or health of the pregnant woman is in danger or if the pregnancy results from the rape of a mentally disabled woman. The government has rolled out national contraceptive campaigns, but despite this there are still up to 500,000 clandestine abortions in every year.
In a country that has one of the highest levels of healthcare and education in Latin America – and where 98% of women give birth in hospital – the link between the ban on abortion and preventablematernal mortality couldn’t be more exposed.
Campaigning groups estimate that up to 400 Argentinian women die every year as a result of botched terminations. According to a UNFPA report last year, abortion remains the leading cause of “elevated” maternal mortality in Argentina and is the primary reason the country has a relatively high and stubbornly resilient maternal mortality rate of 44 deaths per 100,000 births.
In fact, women’s groups point out that haemorrhaging and infection/sepsis, identified by the World Health Organisation as the second and third causes of maternal mortality in Argentina, are also likely to be related to illegal abortions after women are admitted with post-termination complications.
Despite pledging to slash maternal mortality by 2015, the numbers of women dying in some regions are rising, fuelled by increasing poverty and crumbling health services. In August last year, just a month after Argentina celebrated becoming the first country in Latin America to legalise gay marriage, a damning Human Rights Watch report challenged Argentina’s reputation as a human rights champion by saying that prejudice, failing health services and a failure to act on laws guaranteeing free and universal contraception were needlessly killing hundreds of girls and women every year through risky abortions.
In recent months international criticism of Argentina’s poor record on maternal mortality has turned up the heat on politicians to do something to change this.
Now, almost exactly two years on from my meeting with Sophia González, could things be changing?
Last December Argentina’s congress made the historic announcement that it would open a debate on the legalisation of abortion for the first time in it’s history. Fifty members of congress have signed a petition backing a partial legalisation, and have promised to make it a key debate in the runup to elections in November.
While acknowledging this was a huge step forward, campaigners say they still face an uphill struggle to convince politicians and health practitioners that changes to the abortion law will reduce maternal mortality rates.
In December, under-secretary of community health Guillermo González said there were still insufficient efforts being made to reduce abortion-related complications.
Fusa, an NGO working in a hospital in the poor La Boca neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, said doctors were still refusing, “as a matter of conscience”, to operate on women who could legally request an abortion under current laws or who were admitted with post-abortion complications.
Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who has seen a surge of support following the death of her husband – former president Nestor Kirchner – has been outspoken in her support of the current abortion ban. Ahead of national elections, many groups worry that abortion is just too much of a political hot potato.
This year will be crucial in the battle over Argentina’s abortion laws. Whether groups like Fusa can turn what is still a one of the country’s most controversial social, political and religious issues into a question of public health and poverty will mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of women like Sophia González.