It was November 1st, All Saints day. Buenos Aires woke up slowly to a mid-week holiday. From the 100 neighborhoods of the District Federal and surroundings, women came from all corners to meet their peers. These women, as many in the major cities in the country, were joining a movement of green flags in the wind: They were ready to march to the Congress in support for the bill that decriminalizes abortion and makes it a legal, safe and free practice.
I was on the train that Tuesday with my fellow activists of the southern women's movement. We filled 3 wagons. We had met that afternoon in the train station. Soon, more women joined us in each stop, thanks to cell phones and Facebook that allowed us to coordinate schedules. Among their voices, the noise of the rails and the swaying of the train, I thought about abortion. Yes, I am a single mother with a wonderful daughter. I was a teenager who chose to become a mom and, with the same commitment, I was ready to march with other women to support the motion to decriminalize and legalize abortion.
I remembered when I was pregnant; my parents asked me what I wanted to do: Did I want to have the baby and keep it? Give her up for adoption? Interrupt pregnancy? They gave me all the options making sure they will be there for me no matter what my final decision was. Even when there’s no easy choice and all of them had consequences, I felt safe knowing I was not alone.
I decided to have and keep my baby and there were two important factors in my decision: First, I wanted her with all my heart, even though I was abandoned by my boyfriend; And second -this is an essential factor- I had an understanding that the people around me were willing to help. I had the support of my parents and my whole family. I had the skills to raise my daughter and continue my studies, providing a good upbringing and care. In my situation, the choice not to have an abortion was easy.
But, I am not the only woman on earth and my situation could have been very different. In fact, it was very different from that of some women here with me on the train. What if I didn’t have my family’s support? What would I have done? This is the point at which I stand up on behalf of the initiative to approve the bill on voluntary interruption of pregnancy that lifts the legal punishment for abortion and makes it legal, safe and free.
Law and Reality
According to organizations associated with the National Campaign for a legal, safe and free abortion, in Argentina 500,000 abortions are performed illegally each year. This shows that criminalization does not prevent women for getting an abortion. It also means that 40% of all pregnancies end interrupted, and in most cases, in awful unsanitary conditions. Nearly 80,000 women each year are hospitalized due to complications after an abortion and this is the leading cause of maternal death in Argentina, representing 30% of the total deaths. In many cases, complicated abortions and deaths from these abortions are not reported to authorities. For every woman who seeks medical help due to complications, seven others in the same situation do not seek help.
The current bill to legalize abortion was first introduced in the Parliament on May 28th, 2007. On March 16th, 2010 the organizations associated with the National Campaign for the Right to a Legal, Safe and Free Abortion resubmitted the bill, this time with more than 33 signatures of deputies, which was accepted for processing. The discussions about the bill began in the Committee for Criminal Affairs of National Congress on November 1st, 2011
The initiative on voluntary interruption of pregnancy states that -in general- every woman has the right to decide the voluntary interruption of pregnancy during the first twelve weeks of gestational process and should have access to the realization of a legal, safe and free practice in the health system services, under the conditions determined by law. Further, it proposes medical and psychological humanitarian assistance before, during and after the abortion. Also, the initiative demands the adoption, enactment and effective implementation of other complementary laws to improve coverage in public health like integral sexual education in schools and responsible parenthood.
Crime and Sin
"We have the right to decide over our bodies. We have to get patriarchy from out of our uteruses. We women are subjected to Patriarchy,that means the subjection of 52% of the world population." said Liliana, who works as a teacher in a Community Learning Center for Youth. In my opinion, the issue goes beyond the right to decide on the body. It’s a serious health problem in urgent need of a strong public policy.
Mariana, a young woman with tanned skin and light hair, mother of 3 boys, turned to me to tell her experience:"I got pregnant of my fourth and my partner just left. He threw me out of the house. I didn’t work. He didn’t take any responsibility. No woman imagines her life with an abortion. It’s absurd to think women desire abortion. I borrowed money. I took what I had in the bank to pay for it. It hurts me, people’s judgment, because they don’t know anything about me."
She mentioned two important points: First, the juicy business behind illegality. It’s estimated that in Argentina, an illegal abortion costs around $1000 U.S. dollars. Let's check the math: 500,000 illegal abortions each year is 500,000,000 in illegal cash, as illegal as selling drugs or trafficking people. Who are gaining by keeping abortion illegal, risking women’s lives? How much could be improved by the coverage of motherhood support programs and social assistance with that money? Denying women a decent health care is a lucrative business.
The second point Mariana touches on is social punishment. An abortion carries physical and emotional suffering; it’s far from a liberating experience. Rather, it is an experience that carries sorrow: sorrow for loss of a child and an increase in guilty feelings. Feelings like grief, guilt, isolation and punishment are ghosts that torture women’s lives in these cases, with a serious impact in their future expectations.
Grace Estefania, a psychologist who works in a public hospital said: “If this sorrow is mishandled it becomes pathological, with bio-psychosocial implications like psychotic depression with suicidal consequences. Since most of the women who have abortions are alone or young, the risk takes dangerous levels. The stigma of “clandestine situation” increases the guilty feeling, because it’s socially criminalized. It’s not possible to address a proper therapy and control the situation. We don’t have a law that allows us to do that. ”
“It’s a crime, it’s a sin” says people who are against the law. What is the real crime and sin here? Since 1983, 3,000 women have died as a result of illegal abortions. I think the real crime is the inequality of the society where we live ; I say the real sin is the indifference with which we deal with a health crisis like this, just because the most affected are lower class women.
From my sight, abortion is one of the worst expressions of social injustice. It leads to different practices according to the financial status of women. It is not the same to have an abortion in an expensive, discrete and private clinic than in a dirty room in a marginal suburb. The base payment in Argentina is between 250-350 dollars: Who could get $1,000 so easily? In Latin America, mired in poverty and inequality, we put the burden and the blame on poor women who suffer or die from clandestine abortions at the same time we exclude them from other cultural and social services.
Crime and Sin: two words used only on poor women who die or go to prison. When abortion is practiced in a fancy place, it is not called a crime and carries no blame. It's called "removal of tissue." There is no crime when you have money; money pays safe abortions and also the silence of physicians; abortion still remains illegal in high-income patients, but money changes everything: It excludes some people from sanitary risk, legal judgment and social punishment.
Are we as a society completely sure we don’t have any share on these terrible situations? Whereas described above: Are we still capable of addressing the issue with the intention to criminalize those women, as people in the Gospels, with a stone in each hand, ready to punish the adulteress? Who could cast the first stone when the evidence reveals that we have our share of guilt in social inequalities, of which abortion is one of the cruelest expressions?
A New Paradigm for Citizenship
I think of my pregnancy and the early years of raising my daughter. I had people behind me: My baby was a communitarian commitment. I have a huge debt of life with my family, my friends, and my neighbors. I had professors at University who allowed me to attend classes with my baby or leave early when I had to take her to the doctor. That’s how motherhood must be valued, no matter the social origin or marital status: motherhood and child care are social responsibilities and all of us have a share in them. I am tired of hearing that cliché saying that “children are the future”; something is missing there: mothers are the present.
We need a new concept of citizenship where women are returned to the control and choice over their bodies that also includes responsibility about sexual behavior from the early years of education. True democracy must address our health, protect life and support our decisions facing an unwanted or nonviable pregnancy.
A real democracy can’t cover monkey business. Abortion is not a religious or philosophical dilemma. It is a public health emergency we have to face without hesitation. We must reach an agreement in order to implement, with practical sense and without hypocrisy, clear policies on family, sexuality and motherhood that, on one hand, prevent the situation which lead to an abortion and, on the other, provide a healthy and safe environment to receive an abortion, in case this is the path a woman decides to follow. We need public policies based in equity for exercising our sexual and reproductive rights.
On All Saints Day, we gathered to show forcefully we don’t want more of our women killed by illegal abortions. Those women could be our sisters, cousins, neighbors, friends and co-workers. They could even be me or my daughter or you. Who knows? No one has life granted.
I got off the train and joined the mass of women preparing to march to the Congress behind a large canvas that says in spanish: "Educación sexual para decidir, Anticonceptivos para no abortar, Aborto Legal para no morir” meaning we need sexual education to make suitable decisions, free access to contraceptives to plan pregnancies and in case things don’t work, legal abortion to protect our lives and not die.
I think the time has come to end double standard arguments. The church’s threats with hell haven’t prevented abortions. It is time to stop pointing fingers and take charge of the society we have for good. This is a historical moment for women to recover the empowerment around our sexuality and strongly define a position about how our body is affected by political decisions.
While green flags of the march rise over my head, hundreds of thousands of women are facing critical situations with damaging consequences very difficult to reverse. We have 500,000 reasons to seriously question our level of honesty as a society. Indeed, I was blessed. That’s why I support those women who have not been so blessed. I want them to be openly helped and be able to take chances without shame. Because hypocrisy is killing us, women.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.
*Names have been changed to protect wellbeing of women who kindly gave their testimoniesVoices of Our Future 2012: Frontline Journals