After years of fighting, and hundreds of thousands of clandestine miscarriages, Argentina legalised abortion in an historical victory for women’s rights. Writer Beatriz Ferreira spoke to the charity which helped women terminate their pregnancies for the past 10 years.
Cecilia Ousset finally had enough. As a gynaecologist, many times she had to finish clandestine abortions that went wrong. Seeing countless women dying in front of her eyes, sometimes mothers of several children, changed her own opinion and left her desperate to speak up.
“Many times I’ve had to do curettages (clean the uterus) at the hospital. My personal record is 18 curettages in one shift. The most difficult part to remove from the uterus was the head always, because being round, it rolled every time I try to catch it with the forceps,” she wrote on her Facebook account.
Standing next to these women in their final lucid minutes, as they were pressured by police officers whose only worry was to know the name of the person who performed the abortion, has given her a front seat to the brutality of clandestine abortions.
“Abortions with parsley, with knitting needles, with potassium, or with oxaprost in insufficient quantities. All services paid to the extent of their very poor possibilities to an inexperienced person in their neighborhood,’’ Ousset says.
“Most were young, poor women, some with other children; who carried the pain, the fever, the smell of rottenness and the name of the responsible, to the grave.’’
Those painful shifts were enough to change Ousset’s own beliefs. The doctor is a Catholic mother of four, and previously would refuse to perform abortions but now campaigns for the right of a “legal, save and free abortion”.
“I am so sorry for not having understood them and for not having stood by them, with love and affection, in such a terrible moment! I am so sorry that my mind and soul were too limited to understand them, and for having decided what was more or less moral and who deserved my respect!,” she says.
Her Facebook post picked up over 69,000 shares and symbolised a shift in public opinion.
32-year old Micaela Guzmán Doblas and 26-year old Adriana Vallejo are not surprised by the doctor’s testimonial as they know very well the suffering, caused by a legal system which would target and dehumanise women who terminate their pregnancies.
They belong to Socorristas en Red (Rescuers’ network), a feminist group with more than 50 teams, spread across the country, which would accompany anyone who chose to interrupt their pregnancy.
“It all started when they called us. We had a phone line where women could reach us. They were normally really scared, sometimes facing violence, and usually desperate. Our first job was to calm them down and build their trust, get them to explain their situation knowing that they wouldn’t be judged and we were there to listen,” Vallejo explains.
“After that, they were assigned to a ‘socorrista’ who would guide them through the entire process. We would give them the right information on how to have a safe abortion (following a protocol with the World Health Organization and the National Health services), we would share our personal phone numbers so they could talk to us at any time, and mostly, we would listen and support them.’’
Before 2020, in Argentina, it was only legal to have an abortion at the hospital in exceptional circumstances such as rape or a danger to the woman’s life. However even in those cases, many doctors would refuse to do the procedures claiming a consciousness objection and appallingly, sometimes, those were the same doctors who would carry them out in expensive private clinics.
Women who were’t able to afford to travel to a clinic, tried everything to induce an abortion. From exercising to exhaustion, carrying heavy weights, drinking litres of herbal teas, or taking the day after pill when they were already pregnant for a few weeks, amongst various methods
There were also more invasive methods such as inserting sharp objects up through the vagina and the cervix into the uterus (the symbolic coat hanger, knitting needles, and others), ingesting toxic substances or inflicting trauma. When they weren’t able to do it alone, they would pay unskilled people to assist them, but trusting amateurs to end their pregnancy wasn’t and isn’t any safer. In such a volatile climate, the Socorristas offered another option.
“We have helped women of all ages, backgrounds, religions, political beliefs or social classes. Sometimes even when they could afford to go to a clinic, they would prefer to come to us because we would treat it privately, as that didn’t always happen in clinics, especially in small towns, where everybody knew each other and news would drive fast,” Vallejo says.
“We would work with a group called ‘health professionals for the right to decide’ so we’d always recommend friendly doctors, and if they chose to do it at home, we would suggest the use of misoprostol or mifepristona. But we would follow any symptoms closely and forward them to the hospital in case of need,” she added.
The use of medication which gave the option to women to carry out abortions in their homes, at their preferable tim was an advantage for women in situations of violence or abusive partners. But who would provide the pills?
“There are certain things we were and need to be careful about, and all we can say is women did and have ways to find it,” Vallejo replied.
On 30 December 2020, after nine attempts, the Senate approved the legalization of abortion before the 14 weeks of gestation. After 10 years of helping to conduct safe abortions, the Socorristas will now work with the national health services to teach the health professionals and help improve their services and quality of care.
The country described by Cecilia Ousset where “the rich confess and the poor die, where the rich continue to study and the poor are left with a colostomy bag, where the rich have covered the shame of their pregnancy in a clinic and the poor are exposed in a police record” is a step closer to change.
The ‘greens’, colour used to campaign for legal abortions, could finally celebrate, but there remain a significant minority of ‘blues’, representing the pro-life groups, who are not happy about this decision.
“Crazy psychopaths, damn you for promoting and spreading the madness of murdering innocent babies! They will pay for the blood that they will spill for selling themselves to satanism,” is just one of the many hate comments which can be read on the Socorristas en Red Facebook page.
“We live in Neuquén, a province of Patagonia, which is safe. But in many parts of the country, it wasn’t and it is not easy to do our job. Many of our teams have had to change phone numbers or office location. Sometimes people would call our phone lines to threaten us, promising to forward a legal action against us but we never had any serious problems,” Doblas says.
In the homeland of Pope Francis, religion still has a big influence on public opinion but in desperate times, Vallejo says ‘‘even those against it would like to have an option.’’
“We have helped women wearing the blue handkerchief, who would maybe shout things at us on the streets, but when they felt desperate, they came to us, and we’d never say no to anyone.”