Abortion in Argentina: Fact and Fantasy

Nadia Berenstein

Nadia Berenstein examines the reality of illegal abortion in Argentina, where reproductive health and rights depend on privilege.

One night not too long after I arrived in Buenos Aires in January 2006, I was invited by a friend of a friend to a birthday party. The party was in San Isidro, a wealthy neighborhood in the north of the city.

Unsurprisingly, the party was a swank affair—hors d'oeuvre poolside. I began talking to a group of five girls around my age—in their mid-twenties. After explaining the work I had done for Planned Parenthood, I asked them a question that, having grown up in the United States, I have never had to answer.

"If abortion is outlawed," I asked, "what do you do if you get pregnant and don't want to be?

They all answered at once: "You can still have an abortion. It's not so hard. There are doctors. Or you go the U.S. It's not so difficult."

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"But… isn't it dangerous? I mean, what if…"

"Someone's been lying to you, Nadia," one of the girls said. "They say people die, but no one actually ever dies."

"But…"

"Don't worry," another of the girls assured me. "No one actually dies."

* * *

The World Health Organization estimates that 68,000 women die every year as a consequence of illegal abortion. Latin America, a region with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, also has the world's highest rate of unsafe abortion: the World Health Organization estimates 3.8 million illegal abortions are performed every year in Latin America and the Caribbean, causing 4,000 deaths.

Around 100 of these deaths are in Argentina. Though precise numbers are hard to come by, the Argentine Ministry of Health estimates that half a million abortions take place each year. This means 40 percent of pregnancies end in abortion. And because every abortion is a criminal act in Argentina, by law, nearly all of these 500,000 women should face trial and imprisonment. What Argentine women face instead is fear, shame, permanent injury, and even death. Abortion is the nation's leading cause of maternal mortality and one of the major causes of hospitalization.

To outlaw abortion is to create a law that has nothing to do with women's real lives and needs, but is based instead on a moral fantasy that is founded on secrecy, willful blindness, and denial. And the women that are most in danger are those who are most invisible in the highly stratified society. A recent Human Rights Watch report notes that the U.N. Human Rights Committee has expressed its "concern over discriminatory aspects of the laws and policies in force, which result in disproportionate resort to illegal, unsafe abortions by poor and rural women." According to one report, a relatively "safe" abortion can cost 1500 pesos—nearly 500 U.S. dollars, or approximately three times the monthly minimum wage (see page 40 of this PDF).

Although all abortion is illegal, there are certain circumstances where it is considered "not punishable." These are:

  • In cases where the health or life of the woman is endangered by the continuation of the pregnancy.

  • In cases where a mentally disabled or insane woman ("idiota o dementa") becomes pregnant after being raped.

But even these slight exceptions from prosecution offer a false promise. Because, in a country where abortion is illegal, there is no network of abortion providers. Nor is there a standard policy by which doctors, hospitals, or the courts review cases and grant exceptions. This leaves many women, especially victims of sexual assault, without options or legal recourse. But last summer, two cases where abortion was denied seized the public's attention, leading to much-needed policy reform.

One of them involved L.M.R., a severely retarded nineteen-year old who lives in Guernica, a small city in the province of Buenos Aires. L.M.R., who has the mental age of an eight year old, became pregnant after being raped by her uncle. When her mother took her to a hospital to terminate the pregnancy, a local judge stepped in to block the abortion from taking place.

By the time the Buenos Aires Supreme Court reversed the judge's order, the hospital refused to terminate the pregnancy, claiming that it was too far advanced. As a consequence, a network of women's groups raised funds for a secret late-term abortion.

At around the same time, in the Province of Mendoza, the Catholic Church tried to prevent a 25-year old mentally and physically disabled women who had been raped from having an abortion. The court was forced to intervene to allow the procedure to go forward.

Because of the outcry occasioned by these two cases, various organizations have increased the pressure on federal and local governments to make sure women whose circumstances demand it can gain access to an abortion without delay. And there has been significant progress. This March, Claudio Mate, Health Minister for the Province of Buenos Aires, signed a resolution that will make abortion services easier to access for sexual assault survivors and women facing dangerous pregnancies.

Rather than rewrite the section of the penal code concerning "non-punishable" abortions, the resolution expands the interpretation of health emergencies. The new resolution stipulates that a woman's health should be understood to refer to her complete well-being: physical, psychological, and social. In particular, depression, sexual assault trauma, and threats of suicide should be taken to constitute serious health emergencies.

The resolution also clarifies and expedites the procedure around obtaining a "non-punishable" abortion. Instead of requiring judicial authorization, each hospital is obligated to create a review board to evaluate each woman's case. The board must include an OB/GYN, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a social worker, none of whom can object to abortion as a matter of conscience. The review board must come to a decision within five working days; and the abortion should be performed within eight days of request.

In addition, the resolution stipulates that all hospitals must guarantee to provide abortion services. Doctors who refuse to perform abortions can register themselves in a public registry of "conscientious objectors."

These reforms come in the footsteps of a nationwide policy that created basic and humane standards of post-abortion care for doctors and hospitals to follow. Increasingly, legislators and the Argentine public are realizing that abortion laws should be determined in the interests of public health, not of private morality.

I haven't stayed in touch with the young women I met poolside, that evening last year in San Isidro. It will be their generation that determines whether abortion becomes safe, legal, and truly accessible to women at all levels of Argentine society—or whether it remains the privilege of a lucky few.

Roundups Politics

Trump Taps Extremists, Anti-Choice Advocates in Effort to Woo Evangelicals

Ally Boguhn

Representatives from radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue praised Trump’s commitment to its shared values during the event. “I’m very impressed that Mr. Trump would sit with conservative leaders for multiple questions, and then give direct answers,” said the organization's president, Troy Newman, who was in attendance at a question-and-answer event on Tuesday.

Making a play to win over the evangelical community, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump met with more than 1,000 faith and anti-choice leaders on Tuesday for a question-and-answer event in New York City and launched an “evangelical advisory board” to weigh in on how he should approach key issues for the voting bloc.

The meeting was meant to be “a guided discussion between Trump and diverse conservative Christian leaders to better understand him as a person, his position on important issues and his vision for America’s future,” according to a press release from the event’s organizers. As Rewire previously reported, numerous anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ leaders—many of them extremists—were slated to attend.

Though the event was closed to the media, Trump reportedly promised to lift a ban on tax-exempt organizations from politicking and discussed his commitment to defending religious liberties. Trump’s pitch to conservatives also included a resolution that upon his election, “the first thing we will do is support Supreme Court justices who are talented men and women, and pro-life,” according to a press release from United in Purpose, which helped organize the event.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List, told the New York Times that the business mogul also reiterated promises to defund Planned Parenthood and to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a 20-week abortion ban based on the medically unsupported claim that a fetus feels pain at that point in a pregnancy.

In a post to its website, representatives from radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue praised Trump’s commitment to their shared values during the event. “I’m very impressed that Mr. Trump would sit with conservative leaders for multiple questions, and then give direct answers,” said the group’s president, Troy Newman, who was in attendance. “I don’t believe anything like this has ever happened.” The post went on to note that Trump had also said he would appoint anti-choice justices to federal courts, and repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Just after the event, Trump’s campaign announced the formation of an evangelical advisory board. The group was “convened to provide advisory support to Mr. Trump on those issues important to Evangelicals and other people of faith in America,” according to a press release from the campaign. Though members of the board, which will lead Trump’s “much larger Faith and Cultural Advisory Committee to be announced later this month,” were not asked to endorse Trump, the campaign went on to note that “the formation of the board represents Donald J. Trump’s endorsement of those diverse issues important to Evangelicals and other Christians, and his desire to have access to the wise counsel of such leaders as needed.”

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Much like the group that met with Trump on Tuesday, the presumptive Republican nominee’s advisory board roster reads like a who’s-who of conservatives with radical opposition to abortion and LGBTQ equality. Here are some of the group’s most notable members:

Michele Bachmann

Though former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann once claimed that “women don’t need anyone to tell them what to do on health care” while arguing against the ACA during a 2012 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, her views on the government’s role in restricting reproductive health and rights don’t square away with that position.

During a December 2011 “tele-town hall” event hosted by anti-choice organization Personhood USA, Bachmann reportedly falsely referred to emergency contraception as “abortion pills” and joined other Republican then-presidential candidates to advocate for making abortion illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. During the event, Bachmann touted her support of the anti-choice group’s “personhood pledge,” which required presidential candidates to agree that:

I stand with President Ronald Reagan in supporting “the unalienable personhood of every American, from the moment of conception until natural death,” and with the Republican Party platform in affirming that I “support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and endorse legislation to make clear that the 14th Amendment protections apply to unborn children.

Such a policy, if enacted by lawmakers, could outlaw abortion and many forms of contraception. A source from Personhood USA told the Huffington Post that Bachmann “signed the pledge and returned it within twenty minutes, which was an extraordinarily short amount of time.”

Bachmann has also claimed that God told her to introduce a measure to block marriage equality in her home state, that being an LGBTQ person is “ part of Satan,” and that same-sex marriage is a “radical experiment that will have “profound consequences.”

Mark Burns

Televangelist Mark Burns has been an ardent supporter of Trump, even appearing on behalf of the presidential candidate at February’s Faith and Family Forum, hosted by the conservative Palmetto Family Council, to deliver an anti-abortion speech.

In March, Burns also claimed that he supported Donald Trump because Democrats like Hillary Clinton supported Black “genocide” (a frequently invoked conservative myth) during an appearance on the fringe-conspiracy program, the Alex Jones show. “That’s really one of my major platforms behind Donald Trump,” said Burns, according to the Daily Beast. “He loves babies. Donald Trump is a pro-baby candidate, and it saddens me how we as African Americans are rallying behind … a party that is okay with the genocide of Black people through abortion.”

Burns’ support of Trump extended to the candidate’s suggestion that if abortion was made illegal, those who have abortions should be punished—an issue on which Trump has repeatedly shifted stances. “If the state made it illegal and said the premature death of an unborn child constituted murder, anyone connected to that crime should be held liable,” Burns told the Wall Street Journal in April. “If you break the law there should be punishment.”

Kenneth and Gloria Copeland

Kenneth and Gloria Copeland founded Kenneth Copeland Ministries (KCM), which, according to its mission statement, exists to “teach Christians worldwide who they are in Christ Jesus and how to live a victorious life in their covenant rights and privileges.” Outlining their opposition to abortion in a post this month on the organization’s website, the couple wrote that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. “As the author of life, God considers an unborn child to be an eternal being from the moment of its conception,” explained the post. “To deliberately destroy that life before birth would be as much premeditated murder as taking the life of any other innocent person.”

The article went on to say that though it may “seem more difficult in cases such as those involving rape or incest” not to choose abortion, “God has a plan for the unborn child,” falsely claiming that the threat of life endangerment has “been almost completely alleviated through modern medicine.”

The ministries’ website also features Pregnancy Options Centre, a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) in Vancouver, Canada, that receives “financial and spiritual support” from KCM and “its Partners.” The vast majority of CPCs  regularly lie to women in order to persuade them not to have an abortion.

Kenneth Copeland, in a June 2013 sermon, tied pedophilia to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, going on to falsely claim that the ruling did not actually legalize abortion and that the decision was “the seed to murder our seed.” Copeland blamed legal abortion for the country’s economic woes, reasoning that there are “several million taxpayers that are not alive.”

Copeland, a televangelist, originally supported former Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) in the 2016 Republican primary, claiming that the candidate had been “called and appointed” by God to be the next president. His ministry has previously faced scrutiny about its tax-exempt status under an investigation led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) into six ministries “whose television preaching bankrolled leaders’ lavish lifestyles.” This investigation concluded in 2011, according to the New York Times.

James Dobson

James Dobson, founder and chairman emeritus of Focus on the Family (FoF), previously supported Cruz in the Republican primary, releasing an ad for the campaign in February praising Cruz for defending “the sanctity of human life and traditional marriage.” As Rewire previously reported, both Dobson and his organization hold numerous extreme views:

Dobson’s FoF has spent millions promoting its anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ extremism, even dropping an estimated $2.5 million in 2010 to fund an anti-choice Super Bowl ad featuring conservative football player Tim Tebow. Dobson also founded the … Family Research Council, now headed by Tony Perkins.

Dobson’s own personal rhetoric is just as extreme as the causes his organization pushes. As extensively documented by Right Wing Watch,

Dobson has:

Robert Jeffress

A Fox News contributor and senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Jeffress once suggested that the 9/11 attacks took place because of legal abortion. “All you have to do is look in history to see what God does with a nation that sanctions the killing of its own children,” said Jeffress at Liberty University’s March 2015 convocation, according to Right Wing Watch. “God will not allow sin to go unpunished and he certainly won’t allow the sacrifice of children to go unpunished.”

Jeffress spoke about the importance of electing Trump during a campaign rally in February, citing Democrats’ positions on abortion rights and Trump’s belief “in protecting the unborn.” He went on to claim that if Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Hillary Clinton were elected, “there is no doubt you’re going to have the most pro-abortion president in history.”

After Trump claimed women who have abortions should be punished should it become illegal, Jeffres rushed to defend the Republican candidate from bipartisan criticism, tweeting: “Conservatives’ outrage over @realDonaldTrump abortion comments hypocritical. Maybe they don’t really believe abortion is murder.”

As documented by Media Matters, Jeffress has frequently spoken out against those of other religions and denominations, claiming that Islam is “evil” and Catholicism is “what Satan does with counterfeit religion.” The pastor has also demonstrated extreme opposition to LGBTQ equality, even claiming that same-sex marriage is a sign of the apocalypse.

Richard Land

Richard Land, now president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, was named one of Time Magazine‘s “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” in 2005 for his close ties with the Republican party. While George W. Bush was president, Land participated in the administration’s “weekly teleconference with other Christian conservatives, to plot strategy on such issues as gay marriage and abortion.” Bush also appointed Land to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2002.

According to a 2002 article from the Associated Press, during his early academic career in Texas, “Land earned a reputation as a leader among abortion opponents and in 1987 became an administrative assistant to then-Texas Gov. Bill Clements, who fought for laws to restrict a woman’s right to an abortion” in the state.

Land had previously expressed “dismay” that some evangelicals were supporting Trump, claiming in October that he “take[s] that [support] as a failure on our part to adequately disciple our people.”

News Abortion

GOP Fact-Check: Hospital Transfers Don’t Signal Abortion Dangers

Christine Grimaldi

Hospital transfers are not necessarily a cause for alarm, multiple sources told Rewire.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) justified her recent subpoenas of a prominent later abortion provider and first responders in the community where he works by pointing to “public reports” that people who sought abortion care from the doctor required hospital transfers.

Hospital transfers are not necessarily a cause for alarm, multiple sources told Rewire. In fact, the rare instances signal a continued commitment to appropriate patient care that begins in an abortion clinic. A patient may not require further treatment upon arrival at the hospital, indicating a proactive clinic rather than a dangerous one. Regardless of the circumstances, anti-choice activists often hijack so-called emergencies to fuel their coverage of the alleged dangers of abortion care.

Freestanding clinics manage most immediate abortion-related complications, including those that occur during later abortions, said Dr. Daniel Grossman, a provider and professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive services at the University of California, San Francisco.

Abortion-related complications are rare throughout all stages of pregnancy. The even rarer event that such complications necessitate a hospital transfer doesn’t indicate the work of a bad abortion provider, Grossman explained in an interview with Rewire.

“There are sometimes things that happen that are unforeseeable,” he said.

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Evidence Contradicts Blackburn Subpoena Claims

Grossman, his University of California, San Francisco colleague Dr. Ushma Upadhyay, and other reproductive health care practitioners and policy experts studied just how often those unforeseeable instances occur in a review of nearly 55,000 abortions covered under the fee-for-service California Medicaid program from 2009-2010. The state data allowed researchers to track subsequent follow-up care sought after an abortion.

Among all abortions, about one of 5,491, or 0.03 percent, involved ambulance transfers to emergency departments on the day of the procedure, the researchers found.

For procedures in the second trimester or later, major complications that required hospital admissions, blood transfusions, or surgery amounted to 34 cases, or 0.41 percent.

Many hospitals don’t provide abortions, which essentially forces providers to perform the procedure at a freestanding clinic or turn away patients, Grossman said. Providers would not do something unsafe, he stressed, “but that puts a lot of pressure on them because they don’t have that option of deciding to do the procedure of a higher-risk patient in a hospital.”

States that have enacted targeted regulations of abortion providers, known as TRAP laws, may force providers to gain hospital admitting privileges, even though hospitals can’t refuse to care for transfers and emergency arrivals. Many hospitals don’t want to issue admitting privileges to abortion providers, Grossman said, in part because their patient admissions are so infrequent—putting the onus back on clinics to provide abortion care.

Data supports Grossman’s assessment about abortion and clinic safety. Abortion care is one of the safest medical procedures performed in the United States, according to Planned Parenthood and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “The rate of complications increases as a woman’s pregnancy continues, but these complications remain very unlikely,” the groups said in a joint fact sheet.

Blackburn, the chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, framed such instances differently when she shifted the panel’s focus from fetal tissue research practices to later abortion care, issuing subpoenas in mid-May to Dr. LeRoy Carhart and various local and state entities in Maryland.

“Public reports indicate at least five women have been sent to the hospital since December while seeking an abortion in this clinic,” Blackburn said in a press release. Blackburn expressed concern for “the sake of the women who have been rushed from that clinic to the hospital with increasing frequency.”

Blackburn Allegations Rooted in Dubious Sources

Blackburn’s press release cited the five hospital transfers since December 2015, but her subpoenas demand documentation dating back to 2010—signaling a deeper scope to her investigation.

The National Abortion Federation (NAF), the professional association of abortion providers, countered Blackburn’s basis for the subpoenas.

“Abortion opponents have been targeting Dr. Carhart for years because he is a very vocal and visible abortion provider,” NAF spokesperson Melissa Fowler told Rewire in an email. Following the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller, Carhart arguably became the country’s most prominent provider of later abortion care.

The Maryland Board of Physicians, one of the targets of Blackburn’s subpoenas, indicates that Carhart is in good standing. The board’s online practitioner profile system lists no Maryland disciplinary actions, no pending charges, and no reported malpractice judgments and arbitration awards within the past ten years. Malpractice settlements are another measure of provider competence, and Carhart hasn’t had three or more malpractice settlements of at least $150,000 in the past five years, according to the system. Additionally, the courts have not reported “convictions for any crime involving moral turpitude,” which the board defines as “conduct evidencing moral baseness” and determines on an individual basis under common law.  

Absent allegations on the board’s website, the “public reports” smearing Carhart appear to come from anti-choice news outlets. In March, LifeSiteNews.com cited eyewitness accounts from anti-choice activists in reporting that Carhart sent a fourth woman to the hospital in four months. A leader of the radical anti-choice group Operation Rescue covered the same allegations for LifeNews.com.

The same website in 2013 alleged that the Washington Post downplayed the death of a young woman who sought a later abortion at the clinic. However, the Maryland medical examiner’s office found that the woman died of natural causes from a rare complication that can also occur in conjunction with childbirth, and state health officials found “no deficiencies” in the care she received at the clinic. Blackburn’s subpoenas include Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center, formerly Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, where the woman died.

Anti-choice organizations and their reports have played a prominent role in the current congressional inquiry. Troy Newman, Operation Rescue’s president, and David Daleiden founded the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the anti-choice front group that triggered the select panel’s investigation into allegations that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations obtained from abortions.

Blackburn referenced CMP’s heavily edited videos in her threat “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from StemExpress, the tissue procurement company that worked with Planned Parenthood. The GOP’s exhibits at the panel’s April hearing on fetal tissue “pricing” reportedly duplicated or nearly duplicated the “evidence” in the CMP attack videos.

Blackburn’s select panel spokesperson denied that the subpoenas are based on information from anti-choice sources.

“The subpoenas we issued are not based on the sources you have cited,” the spokesperson told Rewire in an email. “However, due to confidentiality agreements, we are not at liberty to disclose the identities of our sources.”

Anti-Choice Activists Hijack Emergencies

Although Blackburn’s evidence may come from different sources, the fact remains that Operation Rescue and other radical anti-choice activists are known for surveilling abortion clinics and making repeated records requests, all to report similar claims about botched abortions necessitating hospital transfers.

duVergne Gaines, director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project, said surveillance tactics enable anti-choice activists not only to photograph and video emergency responders, but also follow up with Freedom of Information Act and equivalent state-level requests for records, including 9-1-1 tapes, if state laws permit their release.

“They collect data,” Gaines said in an interview. “They put that up on the websites themselves, on their own Facebook pages, and have no real knowledge about what or why an ambulance may have been contacted.”

Hospital transfers in some instances have nothing to do with the procedure. Contrary to initial anti-choice accounts, the Lincoln, Nebraska Journal Star reported that a woman transferred in 2015 from a local Planned Parenthood to a hospital “wasn’t suffering complications from an abortion, but had instead sought help at the clinic after being assaulted at her home nearby.”

At times, anti-choice activists may manufacture emergency scenarios, Gaines said. “The most obvious example is alleging that a minor is inside being forced to undergo a procedure against her will, and that can happen if they see a minor go in [to a clinic],” she said.

Rewire reported in March that police appeared at a Mississippi clinic and threatened to charge a single mother with fetal homicide after her daughter, a minor seeking a legal abortion, signed a bogus Life Dynamics document stating that she was being coerced into the procedure.

The prominent anti-choice group uses the document to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing abortion care.

NAF President Vicki Saporta said that many of her group’s members have experienced anti-choice tactics such as staking out clinics for emergency vehicles, placing calls to summon emergency responders, and trailing ambulances to hospitals with the aim of gathering confidential patient information. Preferred tactics depend on the local anti-choice community, she said.

Saporta pointed to a crisis pregnancy center that opened in the same complex as the Germantown, Maryland, clinic where Carhart practices. A Germantown Pregnancy Choices, which comes up as the Maryland Coalition for Life when entered into Google Maps, operates within less than 200 feet of the clinic. The Maryland Coalition for Life cited eyewitness accounts and a video in March to support allegations that an underage girl required a hospital transfer “due to medical emergencies related to a late term abortion.”

Anti-choice activists targeting clinics over safety share a common denominator. “Once their bogus claims are investigated, for the most part, no action is taken because nothing is actionable,” Saporta said.