One week ago today, Argentina’s Senate voted to reject the bill to legalize abortion by 38 votes to 31, with many expounding arguments based on the anti-abortion slogan “Save Both Lives.” However five days after the vote, a woman has died from complications arising from a clandestine abortion, proof that the Senators’ decision will have changed nothing.
On the morning of Tuesday August 14th, a 34-year-old woman known as ‘Liz’ died in San Martín, in the province of Buenos Aires. She had been admitted to Manuel Belgrano Hospital the night before in poor general condition and with a stalk of parsley in her cervix. Doctors carried out an emergency hysterectomy and transferred her to the intensive care unit at Magdalena Villegas de Martínez Hospital in Pacheco. Liz died less than 24 hours later.
— Pino Solanas (@fernandosolanas) August 14, 2018
Parsley is promoted in online forums as a ‘natural’ way to induce miscarriage, as it contains the emmenagogic compounds apiol and myristicin. It can be ingested as a tea or as a supplement but most dangerously, online resources encourage women to insert a bunch of parsley into the vagina twice a day and to keep it there for at least 12 hours. By presenting this ‘remedy’ as ‘natural,’ such sites skim over the very real risk inherent in this process and make it seem appealing to vulnerable women who have resorted to extreme measures.
In an interview with Infobae, Dr. Ana Paula Fagioli from Red de Profesionales de la Salud por el Derecho a Decidir explained why this method is so life-threatening. “The uterus is sterile, it has no germs and when a stalk is inserted, the germs of the parsley, the vagina and the woman’s environment rise into the uterus. This generates chorioamnionitis, an infection of the uterus,” she said.
“When it reaches the stage that it was at [with this patient], it causes something known as Mondor Syndrome, where the uterus becomes a septic focus point. The infection spreads through the blood vessels and causes a generalized infection,” she added, stating that at this point, the syndrome has an 80 percent mortality rate.
— Cynthia García (@cyngarciaradio) August 14, 2018
A coalition of pro-choice groups including Red de Profesionales de la Salud por el Derecho a Decidir, Red de Profesionales de la Salud a Favor de la Vida y del Aborto Legal and Socorristas en Red (Feministas que Abortamos) published a press release yesterday in which they condemned the Senate for allowing the situation to continue.
“She died five days after the senators voted to reject the bill to legalize abortion that had been approved by the Lower House. Five days after there was relief and promises of multiple actions at different levels for people to understand what their sexuality. […] Five days after denying that the discussion was a matter of legal or clandestine abortion and that abortions performed in safe conditions do not kill. Five days after emphasizing repeatedly that legal threats do not dissuade women and people with the ability to perform an abortion, but instead traps them into secrecy and insecurity that is only cushioned by their access to symbolic and material resources,” it reads.
They are also aware of the irony that despite the bill’s rejection, a national company will begin producing misoprostol. “If the Senators and the Governor had not been deaf to our calls, if they had not turned their backs on those of us who guarantee safe abortions, Liz would be alive today. This is about avoiding avoidable deaths. In a country where misoprostol is already produced, where medical teams have the ability to guarantee safe practices, the representatives and the Governor continue choosing secrecy, exclusion and mediocrity.”
For many of the press release’s signatories, Liz’s death, though sad, is unsurprising. Gabriela Luchetti is a gynaecologist and prominent member of Red de Profesionales de la Salud por el Derecho a Decidir. Prior to the vote, she wrote an open letter to Senator Claudia Crexell, who abstained from the vote, in which she implored her to vote in favor of the bill. Today, she is angry that Senators did not seize the opportunity to make lasting change.
“The death of this woman from an unsafe abortion is something that has been happening in Argentina ever since I became aware as a gynaecologist,” Luchetti told The Bubble. “It does not surprise me, but it angers me, because we had the opportunity for it to never happen again and the conservative and misogynist Senate prevented it. They just left things the way they were.”
This anger at the senators’ decision is shared with other members of the signing groups, including Socorristas en Red (Feministas que Abortamos). Nadia, a member of the group, told The Bubble, “this press release comes from the pain it causes us to know that in a democracy, women are dying from clandestine and unsafe abortions. Those responsible are the senators who voted against the law, because they’re not saving a single life.” Lucetti agrees. “This motherless child will now be in socially vulnerable conditions that will compromise his future,” she said.
Nadia added that even in cases where abortion should theoretically be legal, in cases of risk to the mother’s health or like or in pregnancies resulting from rape, “many times healthcare facilities do not have the means to guarantee it,” and she considers this to be “State abandonment” of vulnerable women.
Following the Senate’s rejection of the bill to legalize abortion, the Government has offered decriminalization as a short-term solution to the issue. On August 21st, President Mauricio Macri will present a draft of the reform to the Penal Code to Congress. In the reform, abortion will still be considered a crime, but establishes that women found guilty of having abortions can be exempt from punishment, although the power for this decision lies with the judge.
The article reads: “A prison term of one to three years will be imposed on a woman causing her own abortion or consenting to someone else causing it. The attempt of the pregnant woman to cause her own abortion is not punishable. The judge can may order that the penalty be suspended or exempt the woman from it, taking into account the motives that prompted the women to commit the act, her subsequent conduct, the nature of the act and other circumstances that demonstrate the inconvenience of applying a sentence.”
Nevertheless, even though this reform will allegedly decriminalize abortion, some are nervous about what this change might entail. “I am very concerned about what they are going to do with the criminal code,” said Luchetti. “So far, those of us in the health service have relied heavily on it. Since 1921 we have had the Supreme Court’s F.A.L. ruling, which is causal decriminalization. With a broader interpretation we could perform legal abortions. I worry that the new criminal code will not widen but restrict the decriminalization that we already have.”
This move does show that the Government is acutely aware of the public pressure to reform abortion law in Argentina and the mobilization that the debate has inspired will not be going away any time soon. “We say it’s not over, we don’t want more deaths, we don’t want any more State femicides from unsafe abortions,” said Nadia. “We won’t stop until it’s law. We’re doing it for Liz, we’re doing it for everyone.”
However, while decriminalization is (potentially) a step in the right direction, until abortion is legal and readily available in Argentina, there will be more women like Liz who die because they have taken matters into their own hands. Her story is one of many, and legislators need to open their eyes to the reality facing thousands of vulnerable women in Argentina today. Liz’s death serves as an all too real reminder that legal or not, abortions are still happening. Legislators can choose to make them safer or allow more women to share her fate.