August 10, 2010
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
RIO DE JANEIRO — The government of Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has reversed steps toward protecting women’s health and reproductive rights, and backtracked on its intention to guarantee access to legal abortions, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday.
Despite what seems to be a liberal social wave sweeping through Argentina — including Congress’s approval last month of a national law authorizing same-sex marriages, the first in Latin America — the Human Rights Watch report offered a scathing assessment of the reproductive rights policies under Mrs. Kirchner, who took over from her husband, Néstor Kirchner, as president in late 2007.
Women continue to struggle to obtain birth control, despite a 2002 law ensuring access to it, and doctors shy away from offering legal abortions in the predominantly Roman Catholic country, the report said. Argentine law strictly limits abortions, with exceptions that include physical or mental risk to the patient and pregnancies resulting from rape.
Researchers found that unsafe abortions continued to be a leading cause of maternal mortalities in Argentina. In 2008, more than 20 percent of deaths recorded as a result of obstetric emergencies were caused by unsafe abortions, according to government figures cited in the report.
The group said an estimated 40 percent of pregnancies in 2005 ended in abortions, most of them illegal and unsafe. “Little has changed for the women and girls who depend on the public health system,” the organization said.
The report’s author, Marianne Mollmann, wrote that anti-abortion voices continued to carry significant political weight, as in many Latin American countries. Last month, the Health Ministry “backtracked on its declared intention to guarantee access to legal abortion” under wilting questioning by the Argentine press, Human Rights Watch said.
A spokesman for Health Minister Juan Luis Manzur declined to comment on the report on Tuesday. Neither the minister nor Mrs. Kirchner addressed the issue publicly.
At an event on July 30, Dr. Manzur declared that the government was “against abortion,” noting that the president felt the same way.
Earlier in July, though, a ministry official said Dr. Manzur had signed a resolution backing a guide to legal abortion services. The guide would allow doctors to carry out abortions for rape victims without securing a police report. But a day later, the minister issued a statement saying he had not signed the resolution, and Argentine news outlets suggested that Mrs. Kirchner had ordered him to halt the effort.
In 2002, Argentina’s Congress dismantled an 11-year ban on the use and sale of contraceptives when it enacted the National Law on Sexual Health and Responsible Procreation. The law focused on providing universal access to contraceptives and information on reproductive health.
But researchers from Human Rights Watch have found that, in practice, women in Argentina have encountered barriers to making independent decisions about reproduction, obstacles that include lack of information, domestic and sexual violence, and economic restraints that the government had not adequately addressed. The group also found that public officials were not being penalized for failing to uphold the laws on the books.
Ginés González García, the health minister under Mr. Kirchner, installed guidelines and clearer laws, including a sex-education law, but the government’s efforts were undermined by “erratic implementation,” Human Rights Watch said.
When Mrs. Kirchner took over in 2007, the stigmatization of abortion increased, the group said. The president’s first health minister, Graciela Ocaña, declared abortion to be a matter of criminal law and repudiated the guide on legal abortion. It finally appeared on the ministry’s Web site in March 2010 after Dr. Manzur replaced Ms. Ocaña.
But in July, after republishing the guide, the ministry seesawed on the issue, eventually removing Web references to the resolution the ministry said a day later had not been signed by the minister.
Charles Newbery contributed reporting from Buenos Aires.