As the debate over the bill to legalize and decriminalize abortion continues, the medical sector is in a state of turmoil. Between doctors being shamed for carrying out legal abortions, growing divisions between opposing sides of the debate, and dealing with a constant barrage of ‘fake news,’ medical professionals have found themselves at the center of the action. Now, some are taking it upon themselves to campaign for the bill, spurred on by their experiences of dealing first-hand with the consequences of the law as it stands today.
The ‘Red de Profesionales de Salud por la Vida y el Aborto Legal’ (Network of Healthcare Professionals For Life and Legal Abortion), or RedPSV, are one such group. Comprising doctors, psychologists, nurses, obstetricians, and others who work in the healthcare sector, the organization is relatively new, only forming in the aftermath of the bill passing through the Lower House. A national organization of healthcare professions, ‘Profesionales de Salud por el Derecho a Decidir’ (Healthcare Professionals for the Right to Choose), this group is actually based in Tucumán, bringing a new angle to the debate in Argentina’s typically conservative north.
— Profesionales de la Salud (@Redpspv) July 4, 2018
“In general, the Catholic Church has a strong presence and considerable influence in the north of Argentina,” says Dr. Julia Garat, an active member of RedPSV, imputing the relative ecclesiastical strength to the fact that it is one of the country’s poorest regions. “For us, it was very important to be seen and feel present, to show Tucumán and the north that there’s more than one voice in this debate.”
These medical professionals have adopted various methods for making the pro-choice voice heard in Tucumán. In addition to frequent pañuelazos, their first action, and one that had considerable impact, was to publish an open letter in La Gaceta, the daily with the largest print run in Tucumán, and which also has a rather conservative slant.
In the letter, signed by nearly 300 healthcare professionals, they reject the way that the way the abortion debate has been portrayed. “The debate has been depicted as ‘yes’ to abortion or ‘no’ to abortion, which is the wrong debate. We want to emphasize that the real debate is a question of legal abortion versus clandestine abortion.”
And they would know. As medical professionals, these are the people that have to deal first-hand with the very real consequences of back-street abortions. “I am a doctor and I work in a public hospital,” says Dr. Garat. “The main consequence of clandestine abortions, that we see every day, is the death of women.”
National statistics seriously underestimate the number of deaths, she explains, as they do not include other causes of death such as postnatal death, sepsis, and deaths from “non-specific causes,” linked to clandestine abortions. “We have a situation here in Argentina where a minimum of a woman is dying every week due to abortions carried out in unsafe conditions.” As doctors, the organization’s aim is not only to bring this number to zero, but also to lower the number of women who suffer non-lethal consequences as a result of going to these back-street clinics, such as permanent infertility.
Despite being confronted with these cases every day, there is a profound ideological divide in the medical community at the moment between those who support the bill and those who do not. RedPSV refuse to label the sides as pro-choice and pro-life, because they too, as doctors, are of course in favor of ‘life.’ Rather, they see the debate as a division between those in favor of legal abortion and those in favor of clandestine abortion, but also as a division between medical professionals who “won’t put personal beliefs ahead of caring for our patients, and those who will.”
“Conscientious objection has already been considered in the bill. If a person is sure that abortion does not fit with their principles then they can join the register of conscientious objectors and won’t be forced to carry out abortions if they don’t want to. However, they cannot impose their beliefs on the rest of us. Those of us who are in favor of the legalization of abortion believe that above all, it is a question of public health. It has nothing to do with personal beliefs.”
For RedPSV, religious beliefs should have no sway in institutional decisions and practices. One of the main points that they campaign for is a true separation of Church and State, because even if Argentina is technically a secular country, the reality, especially in provinces such as Tucumán, says otherwise. What they have experienced, particularly in the north, is that the conservative groups who oppose the bill are also those who have refused to properly implement comprehensive sexual education, trapping young women in a situation where they don’t know how to prevent themselves from getting pregnant, and once pregnant, have no choice but to carry to term.
The campaigning of conservative groups linked to the Church has also contributed to the prevalence of various falsehoods, the most common of which is the idea that abortion will be available at any week of pregnancy. “This is wrong,” she says. “The law establishes the limit in our country at 14 weeks. At 14 weeks we are speaking about nothing more than an embryo, we aren’t speaking about a child.”
In addition to claims that women also die as a result of ‘safe’ abortions (“the majority of abortions, 80 percent, are carried our using the drug misoprostol, which represents very little risk to a woman’s health”) and that legalizing abortion increases its frequency (“it’s actually the total opposite”), one of the main reasons given for opposing the bill is the supposed financial burden that legal abortion would place on the national healthcare system.
When mentioned, Dr. Garat’s eye roll is almost palpable over the phone. “Safe, legal and free abortion will not represent any additional cost. It represents savings for the State, which currently pays for all the complications that follow clandestine, unsafe abortions,” she explains. “The cost would be minimal.”
While RedPSV try their best to counter these false preconceptions, the age that we live in means that they come up against a great deal of fake news in the debate, particularly on social media. “It’s frustrating at the moment because there isn’t any real debate and there is a lot of fake information out there. On social media, people share horrible images of fetuses in advanced states of gestation, dismembered, and covered in blood. Their aim is to shock and misinform,” says Dr Garat.
When confronted with all the information and misinformation that exists on social media, she recommends using chequeado.com, a fact-checking website which searches for the reasoning behind public statements to see if they have any foundation. “The site shows that the large majority of the facts and figures given in favor of the bill are real, while the figures given by those against legalization are often either impossible to find or were clearly fake.”
With so much misinformation, controversy, and division even before the bill is passed, it is clear that should the bill become law, implementation will become a whole new struggle. Even in cases where abortion should be legal in Argentina, it can be difficult to find a doctor willing to carry out the procedure. In a recent case in Tucumán province, a doctor performed an abortion on an 11 year-old who had become pregnant as a result of having been raped, a case in which abortion was completely legal. Her name and details were shared by ‘pro-life’ groups and she received abuse and threats, all for simply following the law.
— sergiogonzalezoficial (@gonzalesergio) July 12, 2018
“We will need strong support from authorities, who must be prepared to implement the law and support medical professionals. This will be easier in central regions and the largest cities: Buenos Aires, Rosario, Córdoba. In the north, it will be complicated,” says Dr Garat.
With so much to overcome, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the viability of the bill, even should it manage to get past a conservative Senate. However, while she isn’t confident that the bill will be passed, Dr. Garat remains positive. “Whatever happens in August, this has been an extremely important step in women’s rights. We have achieved a lot; we have moved forward with leaps and bounds.” Even should the bill not succeed, this issue is not going away any time soon.