Trust Women and Give Us a Right to Choose – Separate Church and State

By Inti Maria Tidball-Binz, leader of Atrévete Hollaback, Buenos Aires, Argentina 

I always appreciate it when other people position themselves when writing, so let me introduce myself. I am Inti Maria, I am 31 years old, I live in Argentina (my place of birth) and I am also a British citizen. I lived in England for 20 years, from 1990 to 2010. I am in the odd situation of being considered a person of colour (POC) in one country and white in another. It gives me a very specific view on race issues because I am very aware of the privilege I have in my country of birth. Whereas in Britain the one drop rule counts, in Argentina lots of people who would in Britain be seen as POC self-assign themselves as white by claiming a European ancestor. So it is mainly people with visibly indigenous features who are most discriminated against in terms of jobs, education, the justice system, and the financial system. An influx of Senegalese immigrants has made them a target for police brutality, marginalisation and acts of racism.

I am very aware that I would never have the job I had in England, and that my living situation is in fact stable in a way it never was in England for the same reason. I am immediately trusted, I face little or no discrimination as an outsider or a foreigner as I did in the UK.

I also have a very special privilege in Argentina which luckily does not apply in the UK, because laws were passed over 45 years ago permitting legal and free abortion. In Argentina, I may have access to a safe clandestine abortion at a backstreet clinic, with a qualified doctor. But I know that I, unlike hundreds of thousands of women who risk their health and lives every year, can pay for one which will not kill me. I will have access to someone who knows where I can discreetly choose to not continue my pregnancy, if I needed to. It would still be illegal. I could still be fined or go to jail, and so could my doctor, but hundreds of poorer women without this privilege are forced into situations which often leave them with lifelong disabilities and health issues, if not death, from backstreet abortions.

I am directly involved with pro-choice activism in Argentina. Only last week, I was involved in a confrontation with anti-abortion Catholics as a demo of 18,000 women reached its final destination in front of the Cathedral of Posadas, Misiones. A week earlier, the same confrontation had taken place in La Plata, Buenos Aires. That’s what I decided to write this blog about, because it bears mentioning as anti-abortionists are strengthening their trenches around the world.

There are two things you need to know about Argentina and abortion. The first is that 10% of the Catholic church’s budget comes from the state, giving the church a say in political decisions. This also politically legitimates anti-abortion arguments and makes the abortion debate an incredibly close fight. The second is that although induced abortion is illegal and in the penal code, there is an exception that states that all women and girls who have been raped have a right to get an abortion. This is called “non punishable abortion” (aborto no punible).

Earlier this year, in March, it was clarified that there should be no exceptions to this. Before this, there was so much confusion as to possible exceptions that judicial processes took months, making abortions more dangerous and therefore often dismissed. In March this year, it was also clarified that girls of 14 and over need no parental permission for this procedure. There is also an exception which allows an abortion in the case of severe health problems in the mother or the foetus, which can be resolved in no other way.

Last week, just as I was attending the yearly women’s national encounter in Posadas, Misiones, next to thousands of women who congregate to meet in non-hierarchical workshops, a case for a non-punishable abortion was blocked in the courts of the capital due to pressure from a pro-life NGO.

The story started earlier this month when a motion was passed for reglamentation of non-punishable abortion to be approved in the autonomous capital of Buenos Aires. It was passed by one vote. The mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, is famous for his exercise of the right to veto. He has vetoed over 100 laws since he has come into the role of mayor. Knowing he would likely veto the reglamentation, we started a twitter campaign #noalveto, through the local women’s listserv red informative de mujeres en Argentina (RIMA). Many women’s rights NGOs released statements to campaign against the coming veto. One such campaign received signatures from most of the legislators that passed the reglamentation, as well as famous pop stars, Amnesty International, renowned journalists and more, and was published in a national newspaper, Tiempo Argentino.

All this and more was not enough to stop the coming veto. However, not only did Mauricio Macri veto the reglamentation, he also released information to the press about an upcoming abortion by a victim of human trafficking, giving the time and the place when the abortion would take place. This incited confusion in the press, because at first, it seemed that he was citing an example where the appropriate judicial processes had been implemented and an abortion was able to take place, regardless of the veto. The paper which published the piece almost made him seem ‘pro-choice’. It is speculated he manipulated the media to create confusion as to the meaning of the veto, while at the same time giving anti-abortion protesters the chance to harass the victim and lobby the courts.

Before you ask, no, he will not be tried for releasing information which is legally protected by the patient-doctor confidentiality agreement, although a statement was released by the People’s Defense (Defensoría del Pueblo) saying that he had violated the law by releasing private information.

The judge that took the case, Myriam C. Rustan de Estrada, cited human rights legislation, and highlighted the Argentine constitution which considers a human life to start at conception. She denied the victim of human trafficking, who had been repeatedly raped and denied her freedom, an abortion, on the basis of the right to life of “the unborn child“.

Two days later, the supreme court took her off the case and ruled in favour of the abortion.  But the damage has been done. This woman’s identity was revealed in an act of selfish manipulation and self-interest by a politician, and her life will now be plagued by harassment at the hands of anti-abortionists, adding to the trauma she has already lived through.

The process of being denied and later permitted access to abortion is a particularly traumatising situation for the victim, and Amnesty International has rightly called it a type of torture.

On the positive side, the courts are now investigating judges who have previously blocked abortions in the case of rape, including a judge who in 2010 blocked an abortion for a12 year old girl.

In Argentina 500,000 abortions are practiced every year, most of them clandestine. We cannot know exactly how many women are dying because, being illegal, they go unregistered. Registered deaths from illegal abortions are around 100 a year, but we know it is much more than that. Not to mentions those that suffer lifelong health complications as a result of unsafe conditions.

Although we have made some progress in the last year, there is such a long way to go. It should not be enough to have access to abortion in the case of rape and ill health. There should be access to integral sexual education for children and adults, there should be free access to contraceptives and free information in clinics. And there should be free, safe and legal access to abortions so that women and girls STOP DYING. How many more have to die before we start to take this issue more seriously? We need global support, and visible voices.

Right now, there are many women working to this end in Argentina. The collective of Feminists and Lesbians for Legal Abortion have published an info booklet called “How to have an abortion with [over the counter] pills” making safe abortion available to anyone able to get hold of the pills, something which has become more and more difficult.  There is a national campaign for legal abortions. There are regular marches and meetings. There are groups, men and women, fighting for the right of women to have sovereignty over their bodies.

I, like many, believe we need to separate the church and the state, and give women back the right to choose over their bodies. We need to stop paying the church, and take the church out of school and out of politics. We need to outreach into communities with tools for sexual educate and autonomy. We need to stop giving a platform to people who hate women. As the popular chant says, the church needs to “remove their rosaries from our ovaries”. We need to trust women.

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