A woman sits in a van from which a flag hangs that reads in Spanish "Legal Abortion", during a rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, March 7, 2014. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko.
On April 16th, a court in Argentina’s Tucumán province sentenced a woman to eight years in prison for “aggravated double homicide.” But this wasn’t a violent crime; in fact, it wasn’t a crime at all. A few years ago, the woman, known as “Belén,” experienced severe abdominal pains and went to a local hospital. There she suffered further cramping and bleeding and was informed she had miscarried. This came as a surprise, as Belén was not even aware she was pregnant.
Hospital staff accused her of attempting to induce an abortion and allegedly discovered a fetus in a hospital bathroom. The staff called the police, insisting that Belén had induced an abortion and left the fetus in the hospital bathroom. But there was no DNA to prove this. There was also a lack of evidence proving that Belén had attempted to induce and did not, as she maintains, have a miscarriage. After this trauma, Belén was subject to verbal insults and police were permitted in the hospital room to "inspect" her. They then threw her in jail. For more than two years, Belén was waiting for the ruling. Now she faces another eight years of imprisonment.
There is no doubt that Belén’s fundamental rights were violated. "Any woman who comes to a hospital, whether she is miscarrying or has an incomplete abortion, is protected under the doctor-patient confidentiality clause that prevents hospital staff from denouncing her," said Soledad Deza, her attorney. Deza works with IWHC partner Catholics for the Right to Decide (CDD)-Argentina.
CDD-Argentina challenges the Catholic Church's conservative stance on issues such as contraception, LGBT rights, and abortion. The organization sensitizes and builds the capacity of professionals in various sectors—health providers, journalists, and lawyers—to become advocates for sexual and reproductive rights. CDD played a key role in helping to launch and expand a national alliance of 200 lawyers, who are actively defending cases like Belén’s.
Whether Belén suffered a miscarriage or had attempted to induce her own abortion, she had a right to care and confidentiality. She deserved to be treated with respect. Instead, she suffered degrading treatment, with the hospital staff acting as judge and jury. Belén was condemned as guilty before the trial even began.
This case plainly illustrates how public institutions regularly fail women in Argentina. While on paper the country has a fairly comprehensive reproductive and sexual health program, in reality these services are often not available or of poor quality. The level of care varies from province to province, and Tucumán, in particular, has a record of violating women’s reproductive rights. Recently, for example, there have been several cases of health providers denying legal abortion services to adolescent victims of sexual violence. The province lacks a protocol outlining what health services related to abortion are permitted by law. (In Argentina, abortion is permitted if the woman’s health or life is in danger or in the case of rape.) As a result, there is confusion among both providers and patients about what services are legal and should be offered. In the absence of clear guidelines, personal biases creep in, jeopardizing women’s health and rights. Women who seek reproductive health services run the risk of providers turning them away, or sometimes, turning them in.
And the judicial system does not provide them with legal recourse. Deza spoke of the injustice women like Belén face: "When anti-choice sectors speak of abortion, they speak of ‘homicide’—whoever aborts is a ‘murderer’—and here [in court] the same is reflected through judicial bias."
Belén plans to appeal the ruling, and she can at least count on the support of Argentina's vibrant women’s movement to stand behind her. Argentina's National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, of which CDD is an active member, is calling for the nullification of the ruling and for Belén’s immediate release.
Belén's troubling case demonstrates how women not only face an uphill battle in exercising their reproductive rights, but how institutions meant to care for and protect us instead regularly violate our rights—including the right to health, confidentiality, and due process.