Dr. Raquel Tizziani identifies herself as an educator. Anti-abortion activists think she’s a murderer. The professor of medicine at the National University of Rosario (UNR) is spearheading Argentina’s first university curriculum on abortion. Two months before the program’s start date, its faculty is already under fire. In the three days after UNR announced the plan, no fewer than 10,000 emails demanding an immediate halt to the program flooded the inbox of Ricardo Nidd, Dean of the College of Medicine.
The abortion debate is not new to Argentina. For over twenty years, groups like the Institute of Gender, Law, and Development (Insgenar); the Social and Political Institute for Women (ISPM); and the Information Network of Argentine Women (RIMA) have fought to expand the legal circumstances for abortion. Every government administration has fought back, aided by the Catholic Church and abetted by anti-abortion groups such as the Federal Network of Families (RFF), Action for Life and Family (AVF), and Argentine Foundation of Tomorrow (FAM).
Dr. Tizziani and her colleagues are fighters of a different sort. Abortion is legal in Argentina under certain provisions. A person can terminate a pregnancy without penalty in cases of rape or if it presents a grave danger to the pregnant woman’s health. Nonetheless, Dr. Tizziani finds that doctors are misinformed about these legal mandates. “We teach doctors to treat abortion only as a crime,” she said. “We inculcate fear, and not rights.” A 2016 case study of 740 Argentine medical students’ knowledge of abortion law found that half (52.5 percent) understood that abortion has legal restrictions, 24.9 percent thought it was always illegal, and 21.5 percent admitted they did not know.
Misinformation on abortion infiltrates health care at all stages. Many doctors do not know, for example, when they can and cannot declare themselves “conscientious objectors” to abortion, according to Dr. Tizziani. Under federal protocol, only professionals slated to perform the abortion can opt out. Those who obstruct pre- and post-abortion procedures, such as consultations or sonograms, can be penalized.
Political lobbies that capitalize on this misinformation push provinces to misinterpret the law. The Association for Civil Rights (ADC) found that Salta allows doctors to refuse to perform an abortion in cases other than moral objection, and requires the Public Ministry to intervene before any abortion proceeds. It also criminalizes abortion after 12 weeks. In November 2015, a 12-year-old girl from the Wichí community named Juana became pregnant as a result of a gang rape. Advocates argued that her mental and physical health were at stake. She nonetheless did not receive proper medical care. At seven months, she gave birth via caesarean section to a fetus with Anencephaly — cephalic disorder which results in the nondevelopment of a large portion both of the skull and brain. Her case pushed the Lower House of Congress to mandate: “All courts and administrative authorities are to comply with comprehensive health care protocols to deal with cases of non-punishable abortions.” But the pushback still proves more powerful. The conservative NGO Portal de Belén, for example, has maintained the national ban on emergency contraception, which would preclude an abortion in the first place, since 1992.
Dr. Tizziani’s goal is simple: make the medical system do its legal job. She sees abortion as an issue of public health, not of morals. “We’re not serial killers,” she said. Al contrario, Dr. Tizziani believes her curricula will save lives. An estimated 500,000 illegal abortions occur annually in Argentina, constituting an estimated 40 percent of all pregnancies according to some sources. They also comprise 30 percent of maternal deaths. Dr. Tizziani does not seek to be a revolutionary. Nonetheless, she is revolutionizing medical education in Argentina. She hopes her courses will be a precedent for an integrated sexual education program, designed to prevent mothers from having to endure painful procedures in the future.