Date: September 28, 2010
Author: Marcela Valente
BUENOS AIRES, Sep 28 (IPS) - Heartened by the passage of a same-sex marriage law in Argentina, women's organisations in this South American country stepped up their demands for the legalisation of abortion, on the Day for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Some 1,000 members of the Juana Azurduy Women's Collective, better known as Las Juanas, filed a "collective and preventive" writ of habeas corpus at different courtrooms around the country, demanding that the criminalisation of abortion be declared unconstitutional.
They also asked the courts to press the legislature to bring the law that penalises abortion into line with international norms that recognise a woman's right to make decisions about her body.
"We chose the habeas corpus route because it protects people's freedom, and we are thus asking the courts, in a preventive manner, to protect us if we become pregnant and want to interrupt the pregnancy," Las Juanas activist Gabriela Sosa told IPS.
Sosa, who is head of the organisation in the eastern province of Santa Fe and is one of the women who signed the writ of habeas corpus, said the present political and social climate in the country lends itself to making progress towards a law that would decriminalise abortion.
"Not long ago we could not imagine that Argentina would have a same-sex marriage law, and this year it was achieved because there is social concern and interest in debating these issues, and the politicians are picking up on and reflecting that," she said.
But she admitted that the 2011 elections are an obstacle, because "no candidate is going to want to pick up the hot potato of abortion" in a campaign year.
In Argentina, abortion is a crime punishable by prison, except in cases where the pregnancy is the result of rape, the expectant mother's life is in danger or she is mentally ill or disabled.
But every year some 460,000 to 600,000 women resort to abortion in this country of 40 million people, according to the report "Estimate of the Extent of the Practice of Induced Abortion in Argentina", prepared by experts from the University of Buenos Aires and the Centre for Population Studies.
In Latin America, abortion is only legal in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico City. With the exception of Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua, where abortion is illegal under any circumstances, in the rest of the countries in the region "therapeutic" abortion is legal in certain cases, such as rape, incest, fetal malformation or risk to the mother's life.
Nevertheless, more than four million illegal abortions a year are practiced in the region, according to different sources, and 13 percent of maternal deaths are caused by abortion-related complications.
In Argentina, unsafe abortions are the main cause of maternal mortality, the Juana Azurduy Women's Collective reports.
Against that backdrop, Las Juanas presented their legal action on Tuesday Sept. 28, observed as the Day for the Decriminalisation of Abortion by the women's movement in Latin America and the Caribbean since 1990.
The London-based Amnesty International joined its voice to the campaign. The deputy director of the rights watchdog's Americas Programme, Guadalupe Marengo, called for the repeal of all laws that penalise or provide for the imprisonment of women or girls who undergo an abortion under any circumstances.
Amnesty said the restrictions on safe, legal abortion put the human rights of women in the region in "grave danger."
For years, women's groups in Argentina have been campaigning for the decriminalisation of abortion, but have continually run up against the fierce resistance of the powerful Catholic Church and other conservative sectors of society.
However, this year the situation looks more favourable. Since March, the lower house of Congress has been studying a draft law that would decriminalise abortion, which has the backing of around 50 lawmakers from different parties.
The bill, which may be debated in October, was introduced by Cecilia Merchán, a legislator with the left-wing movement Libres del Sur, and would legalise first-trimester abortion on demand, similar to the law in effect in the Federal District of Mexico City.
None of the nearly 20 earlier bills on abortion introduced in the Argentine legislature over the years progressed. But the current draft law has already made it through several committees and is on its way to a full session debate in the lower house.
Merchán told IPS that the bill she sponsored is in response to the large number of abortions practiced in this country, and especially to the fact that more than 70,000 -- mainly low-income -- women are hospitalised annually for complications from unsafe abortions.
"Last year, 120 of the women admitted to public hospitals with abortion-related complications died: in other words, every other day, a woman dies in Argentina due to this cause," she said.
The lawmaker said "the present climate is favourable" to moving forward on the issue because "society has raised the need for Congress to address a question that has severe consequences for the lives of so many women.
"Just like in the case of the debate on same-sex marriage, society as a whole, even those who are opposed, don't want to keep hiding a reality that involves so many people," she said.
"For us, this is not a new issue, but we see that society's demands are now forcing legislators to discuss it," she added. There have also been declarations on the issue by sectors that in the past have been reluctant to take a public stance, like public universities. The deans of the University of Buenos Aires, for instance, backed the decriminalisation of abortion by 23 votes against one, in August.
In addition, there have been statements in favour by members of the Supreme Court, like magistrate Carmen Argibay, who said this month that the time to debate changes in the country's abortion law "is now."
However, while the legislators are preparing their offensive in the lower house, another bill has been presented in the Senate, which would merely expand the circumstances under which therapeutic abortion is legal.
The idea underlying the initiative by several women senators is that legal abortion would also be made available to women facing risks to their health, a concept that would be broadly defined as physical and mental health.
The women's organisations do not have the support of President Cristina Fernández, who has spoken out against the legalisation of abortion. But Merchán is confident that the president's position will not impose itself in the legislative debate.