While the outcome of the abortion debate in the Senate is still very much anyone’s guess, one thing is becoming crystal-clear: should the bill be passed, implementation will be a whole new struggle. The bill not only seeks to decriminalize abortion, but also provide women with access to free, safe, and legal abortions as part of the public healthcare system, a point that has engendered controversy for politicians and medical professionals alike.
When not arguing from a religious or political point of view, most of the criticism of the bill seems to be based on the potential cost of offering free abortions on the public healthcare system, with many opponents to the bill arguing that it would represent a significant financial burden for the Argentine state. However, the Minister for Health, Adolfo Rubinstein, has sought to calm these concerns, instead positing that the health service would actually work more efficiently should abortion be legalized. In an interview in the Lower House, he argued that, “the costs of abortion are the result of complications. With safe abortion, these costs would be dramatically lowered.”
His claim has been supported by a report from the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, which estimates that in Developing Nations, the average cost of universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, including contraceptives, abortion and post-natal care, would be around US $9 per person per year, about AR $0.70 per day.
El costo promedio del acceso universal a la salud y derechos sexuales reproductivos es de 9 US$ al año por persona. Al dólar de hoy son $255, son 0,70 centavos por día #AbortoLegalYa https://t.co/trhL8J3IH2
— Activa el Congreso (@activacongreso) July 9, 2018
However, the obstacles in the medical sector are not simply financial. Quibbling over costs aside, what this debate has revealed are the deep divisions between health professionals based on their stance on abortion. Last week, it was revealed that a nurse in Santa Fe had called on her fellow nurses to make women “suffer” during abortions, should the bill be passed. Despite national outcry and widespread criticism of her actions, this is far from being an anomalous reaction. This week, another nurse was revealed to have threatened to harm women seeking abortions.
Shocking as these revelations are, they are sadly not surprising, in a country where healthcare and religion are often intertwined. Several clinics with religious affiliations have demanded the right to conscientiously object to carrying out abortions, most often in central and northern provinces where the Church remains a powerful force.
— FRENTE MURGUERAS SJ (@SjFrente) July 1, 2018
The debate over the bill to decriminalize and legalize abortion has revealed an existential crisis at the heart of the medical community itself. While it is widely known that all physicians must swear the Hippocratic Oath when they begin practicing, the ambiguities of this millennium-old text allow ruptures to form between medical professions who disagree on its meaning. In its simplest form, the oath requires medical practitioners to treat the ill to the best of their ability. In the case of abortion, this would surely mean allowing women access to safe and legal abortions, rather than leave them to the mercy of dangerous back-street clinics.
However, ambiguity arises when the text reads “I will not give a women a destructive pessary,” which is often interpreted by the pro-life movement as an outright rejection of abortion. However, Dr. Daniel Sokros, medical ethicist, rejects this misinterpretation. Abortion was legal in Ancient Greece and could be carried out either via oral methods or the insertion of pessaries. For Sokros, the text is only a clinical objection the pessary method, which was dangerous as pessaries could cause lethal infections.
This confusion at the heart of the Hippocratic Oath explains some of the conflict between the pro-life and pro-choice movements within the medical profession. Just as differing interpretations of religious texts generate conflict, so too has the ambiguity of the Hippocratic Oath caused divisions in the medical community, with both sides using the ancient tract to justify their cause. What isn’t ambiguous, however, is that threatening to purposefully harm women seeking abortions goes against every single medical ethic there is.
Health professionals on different sides of the argument have established opposing movements and campaigns, placing undue strain on a profession that already has its fair share of pressures. The pro-life side, represented by organizations such as Médicos por la vida (Doctors for Life), have organized the No cuenten conmigo (Don’t Count on Me) campaign, in which they refuse to support legal abortions and instead claim to want to ‘save both lives.’ This network has gained in power in recent months, managing to preach Catholic dogma under the guise of pseudo-scientific ethical practice.
Meanwhile, the pro-choice camp is represented by various movements, including Red de profesionales de la salud por el derecho a decidir (Health Professionals for the Right to Choose) and Red de profesionales de la salud por la vida y el aborto legal, or redPSV (Health Professionals for Life and Legal Abortion). These organizations both aim to reveal the hypocrisy at the heart of the pro-life movement, based on the experiences of these doctors in treating the victims of clandestine abortions.
“The illegality of abortion does not save any of the ‘two lives’ because in reality, abortions are performed despite being illegal,” says redPSV. “Legal abortion would lower state spending on this issue, since 80 percent of abortions are carried out with a pill, and those who need surgical intervention do not require hospitalization. On the other hand, complicated, unsafe abortions mean a great expense to public health.”
Imponente pañuelazo hoy en el Hospital Austral, por el #AbortoLegalya. Los directores encabezan la campaña nefasta que reclama la objeción de conciencia institucional para bloquear el aborto. El movimiento de mujeres no tiene techo. pic.twitter.com/x5blIcEKWP
— Fran Prado (@pradofranc) July 6, 2018
Following the vote in the Lower House, almost 3,000 medical professionals outright rejected the No Cuenten Conmigo campaign, instead signing a document named #ContásConmigo (Count on Me), which opposes the frankly negligent attitude of pro-life doctors. “Judging those who decide to have an abortion is not our role,” says the letter. “We know this, because we have been listening to those who abort, that the reasons for having an abortion are numerous and often complex. It is not for us to act as judges.”
#ContásConmigo Carta de profesionales de la salud
A las mujeres y a otras personas con capacidad de gestar que necesiten abortar, sepan que no las abandonaremos. Sepan que cuentan con nosotras y nosotros. #AbortoLegalYa
— ELA (@EquipoELA) June 23, 2018
Herein lies the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of the pro-life medical professional movements. They seem to have confused their role, instead believing themselves to be the moral guardians of Argentina’s citizens. It is frankly staggering that doctors and nurses, those who deal first-hand with the tragic consequences of clandestine abortions, can maintain in any way that they are opposing the bill to ‘save both lives.’ They, more than anyone, know this is a lie.
The fact that these educated individuals believe their own dogma is a worrying indication that the struggle to legalize abortion will be a long one. Should the bill pass through Senate, implementation will be a Herculean task, as legislators fight to change mentalities that are rooted in fiction, not fact, and overcome deepening divides within the medical community itself.