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Debate over legalising abortion intensifies in Argentina

22 July 10 14:28
Argentine feminists stop traffic outside the Congress building in Buenos Aires
By Candace Piette
BBC News, Buenos Aires

"My body is mine and I will decide what I do with it!" shouted the young feminist activist outside the Argentine Congress building in central Buenos Aires.

"We demand a debate on abortion in society and a vote in Congress," she said.

After the recent vote by the Argentine Congress to legalise same-sex marriage, the legalisation of abortion does indeed seem set to be the next big debate in the country.

Calls in favour of legalisation have been fuelled in part by international criticism of the country's high maternal mortality rates.

A recent study by the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, found that over the past 15 years complications from abortion were the main cause of maternal deaths in Argentina.

For every 100,000 live births there are 44 deaths - more than twice as high as in neighbouring Chile and Uruguay.

Abortion is permitted only in cases of rape, if the mother's life is at risk or if the woman is deemed "of feeble mind".

There are an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 illegal abortions each year.

Sex education

But the lack of clarity about this was highlighted earlier this year when a teenaged girl asked for legal permission to terminate her pregnancy after being raped.

"It was shameful," said Elizabeth Yapur, a lawyer in the oil industry town of Comodoro Rivadavia in the southern province of Chubut.

"The judge took 40 days to decide they could go ahead, then passed the decision on to the hospital which took a further 10 days," said Ms Yapur.

Tests showed that the girl had been impregnated by her stepfather, a policeman, but she was 20 weeks into her pregnancy by the time she received the authorisation to end it.

A high number of doctors in the health service refuse to carry out abortions, says Dr Jorge Vinacur, President of SOGIBA, the Gynaecological and Obstetrics Society of Buenos Aires.

But a lack of political will also contributes to the high maternal death rates and number of abortions, he says.

"Unsafe abortions are the main medical emergency after Caesereans. They represent a huge cost for the health system, particularly for the public sector," he said.

"We need decent sexual education and family planning policies."

Dr Vinacur says that the numbers of maternal deaths are also being hugely underestimated.

Research done by SOGIBA shows that for each maternal death registered in the city, two go unregistered.

"This is the tip of the iceberg - more research is needed to discover the real magnitude of this," he said.

Severe blood loss

There are also serious deficiencies across the country in the way women are treated by the health system.

Under-Secretary of Community Health Guillermo Gonzalez acknowledged to the media that there were problems, including:

Paula Ferro, co-ordinator of the health ministry's National Sexual Health and Responsible Procreation programme told the BBC that the government was very worried by the high number of maternal deaths.

"Argentina is determined to bring down the numbers, we don't want another woman to die," she said.

A national phoneline has started offering contraception and family planning advice, said Ms Ferro. The focus this year is on the poorer provinces in the north of Argentina where maternal deaths are highest.

"We think it is fundamental to clean up this situation," says Cecilia Merchan, a member of the lower house of the Argentine Congress and a leading voice in the pro-choice debate.

"We are talking about a problem of social justice. Many of the women who have illegal abortions are resorting to unsafe abortions in unsanitary conditions because they don't have the money to pay for a private clinic," she said.

"All women should have the same access to a pregnancy termination in safe circumstances, not just the rich."

Campaigners are hoping that an abortion bill launched two years ago calling for the legalisation of abortion will be debated in Congress this year before the start of presidential election campaigning in 2011.

The depth of feeling over the issue of abortion came to the fore on 20 July when reports emerged that the health ministry was about to issue new guidelines on when abortion would be permitted.

Doctors would be allowed to perform an abortion if a woman could produce a sworn statement, rather than proof, that she had been raped.

Anti-abortion campaigners argued that this amounted to legalising abortion without a debate in Congress.

"This is de facto legalisation using an administrative procedure," Christian Hooft, vice-president of the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches, told La Nacion newspaper.

The health minister subsequently denied there there would be new guidelines.

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