Abortion Phone Line in Argentina: More Information, Fewer Risks

  Source: Americas Program

According to the Ministry of Health, on the average we women abort twice in our lifetimes, including spontaneous and induced abortions. In Argentina, between 460,000 and 700,000 abortions are performed annually. Abortion is an undeniable reality.

But in this country abortion is still classified by the penal code as a crime, with a few exceptions, and is still performed in secret, which affects especially those with fewer resources, less information, and less access to healthcare. Some of the consequences are readily visible: 60,000 women end up hospitalized as a result of badly performed abortions and some 100 die per year.

Faced with this scenario, the organization Lesbians and Feminists for the Legalization of Abortion (Lesbianas y Feministas por la Legalización del Aborto) decided to move from making demands to taking action. Fifteen activists from feminist, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and transvestite), student, leftist, and human rights movements got together for a common purpose, the "Abortion: More Information, Less Risk" telephone line. They investigated how pregnancies can be terminated by pharmacological means, specifically with the use of Misoprostol and Mifepristone, medication that has been around for more than 20 years and is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other groups because of its efficacy and low risk of fatality.

The strategy appeals to the rights to information and free expression, two pillars of liberalism, in order to break the monopoly on knowledge of the subject. "We are trying to democratize information for women who don’t have access, and democratizing implies guaranteeing the greatest circulation possible, an obligation the state is not meeting. Basically, we spread information that is already public, that is on the internet, and that is endorsed by the WHO as well as the Latin American Obstetric and Gynecological Federation (Federación Latinoamericana de Obstetricia y Ginecología)," explained Verónica Marzano, social worker, feminist, and a member of the organization.

"We don’t do counseling, nor do we make value judgments, and we believe that’s where the success of the initiative lies. We simply repeat data on dosage, the danger signs, when it’s necessary to see a doctor, what the woman’s rights are when dealing with health professionals, and what rights protect women when an abortion is in progress," adds Lía, a communications student.

The initiative for the phone line sprang from the Dutch organization Women on Waves and reached the Argentine activists by way of the Ecuadorian experience. Lesbians and Feminists for the Legalization of Abortion then spent nine months studying the WHO protocol and planning together on how to reach women.

The phone line was launched in July of this year with actions in several different provinces. Its first impact came about thanks to friendly organizations that joined in spreading the word and to the support of alternative media and community radio stations.

But the effect of the phone line was greatest soon after presentation of the first report to the Buenos Aires legislature. In it the organization explained that the calls being received revealed a whole series of taboos about the body, sexuality, maternity, and women’s ability to make decisions. And they were confronted with enormous misinformation concerning the use of Misoprostol.

The report relates how references to the drug were intertwined with myths, errors, and prejudices and how false, outdated, and incomplete information was being circulated. "Every professional or communications medium that spreads information that is partial, false, slanted, and full of misogyny becomes complicit as well, failing in the democratic duty to contribute to the development of critical political thinking through the dissemination of knowledge. Information about safe abortion can no longer be spread like a secret. Silence is not health," the document concludes.

After the report was published there was a five-fold increase in the number of calls and today the organization registers as many as 50 consultations a day. After the appearance in the mass media, outreach spread throughout the country as well and contacts with women expanded, now including a range of ages and social levels. This Nov. 25 the second report will be delivered in the national congress—in the context of the day against gender violence—with the goal of appealing to legislators to approve a bill legalizing abortion.

The Consultations

"We thought the calls would come after a few months, when the line was better established. That they wouldn’t call just because they had seen a sticker. It [the response] was very strong and that speaks to how alone the women are. Maybe it’s a sticker they see on the train when they’re returning from work, or on a lamppost, at a time when they’re pulling out their hair because nobody is reaching out to them," Graciela Fernández comments.

The national reach of the initiative was a surprise not just to the women and men of the movement. Despite the fact that different women’s and human rights organizations initiated discussion of abortion years ago, this is the first time there has been a direct action initiative with such strong results.

The success is also partly explained by the use of technological developments, both in using advances in communication and in the pharmaceutical industry as well. "Misoprostol is a drug that changed the paradigms of the debate. Now women can exercise their rights without doctors standing in the way. With other methods, intervention is unavoidable. Besides, Misoprostol reduces the costs of the health system," Luciana Sánchez, a lawyer for the organization, told the newspaper Crítica de la Argentina.

Misoprostol is a medication that is used at any stage of the pregnancy and that has the purpose of lowering maternal mortality. As a method of abortion, it can be used up to the ninth or twelfth week and it can be administered at home, with subsequent medical control. It is a non-invasive method, has a 1% risk of infection and less than 5% risk of hemorrhage. The price is around 300 pesos ($75), one-fifth the cost of surgical abortion. But despite these characteristics and despite its being considered an essential medication by the WHO, Misoprostol is not authorized in this country, even for obstetric use.

Nor did the advantages of the method make the decision to give out information on how to perform a pharmacological abortion easy for members of the organization. "It was all a process of wiping the secrecy out of our own heads, of understanding that what we were going to do was legal. The penal code makes us feel that not only is it against the law to decide about our own bodies and to perform abortions, but that it is also against the law to talk, that there is punishment for telling about it. That’s why the effect we are looking for is to remove abortion from the place of silence that criminalization confines it to and to remove the dramatic burden it carries. It puts an end to the pact of silence," Verónica comments.

The report "Forbidden Decision," published in 2005 by the organization Human Rights Watch, shows that one of the main problems contributing to the lack of contraceptive methods in this country and to bad abortion practices (like the use of needles, infusions, catheters) is doctors’ refusal to supply information. Health professionals usually cite reasons of conscience for not giving the instructions necessary to avoid exposing the patients to risk and for not performing legal abortions, that is, according to the penal code, in those cases in which the woman’s life is at risk or in which the pregnancy results from rape or an "attempt against the purity of a feeble-minded or demented woman."

For fear of losing their licenses, they often also request the intervention of a judge in these cases and, because of the time the justice system takes, the abortion ends up not being performed. It also frequently happens that they report abortions as they are taking place, thus violating the right to privacy.

"One of the questions we ask is the woman’s location. That lets us know if there are hospitals available that are free of obstetric violence, that is, institutions that do not report women who consult them after inducing an abortion. Most doctors violate the law for eradicating violence against women, which, among other provisions, prohibits obstetric violence,"
1 Verónica says.

"What we are also seeing with the phone line is that women have had enough of hiding. They even call us from the bus, from the office, or from the hospital itself. Women with children, without children, single, married, from every social stratum and province. They feel that they have the ability to choose for themselves, without the mediation of the doctors, parents, husbands, who usually do it for them," Graciela adds.

"Legal Abortion to Stay Alive"

Every year 19 million women in the world undergo unsafe abortions and one of every 300 of those women dies. Statistics from the Ministry of Health in Argentina indicate that currently one of every 530 women is at risk of dying from causes related to pregnancy, birth, or maternity, that 4.4 women—one of every 10 live births—dies from causes related to maternity, and 24.2% of cases by pregnancies terminated by induced abortions and that for every pregnant woman who loses her life, 20 women suffer illnesses or injuries resulting from the secrecy of abortion. These deaths are unnecessary and preventable. Argentina accepted the United Nations commitment of reducing maternal deaths by three-quarters by 2015, a goal difficult to reach when we take into account current indicators and the unlikely prospects for legalization of abortion by parliament in the short term. Nevertheless, the thrust of the phone line and recent statements by Supreme Court Minister Carmen Argibay against the secret abortion market make that possibility a little closer to reality.

"One of the most important things the phone line brought out was the voices of women having abortions. It is no longer about people who speak for the women, it is the women ourselves. There are abortions, we have to recognize that that argument is settled and to struggle to make the state organize to make them safe and free," Verónica comments.

There are currently at least three bills in congress for the legalization of abortion. Since the 90s, the fate of such proposals has been failure for the absence of parliamentary action, but the organizations concerned with the demand hope the tendency will be reversed in the near future. The bill with the most acceptance was offered by the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion (Campaña Nacional por el Derecho a un Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito), which carries the signature of socialist Representative Silvia Augsburger. Another bill is by Representative Vilma Ibarra, but it did not receive as many supporters because it establishes that only doctors can perform abortions, leaving out pharmacological methods.

The Campaign is a group of organizations from all over the country that for six years has been articulating different positions in pursuit of a unified demand that is now expressed by the slogan "Sex education for deciding, contraceptives for avoiding abortion, legal abortion for avoiding death." Some organizations, like Lesbians and Feminists for the Legalization of Abortion, question this motto for its stepped, sequential approach: "We believe we have to question the patriarchy itself and to separate contraception from abortion. Abortion is a woman’s right and what matters is that they have all the options available so they can choose which they prefer," Graciela explains.

Nevertheless, despite differences, almost all the feminist organizations and others dealing with gender issues now hope the bill will become law in order to work toward the democratization of the doctor-patient relationship. "What’s important besides is that compliance with these laws then be assured. The state needs to organize around the right to choose about our bodies in order to give us the tools, which means, among other things, the public manufacture of Midroposol," Verónica concludes.


 1. Obstetric violence is that which health professionals commit on women’s bodies, consisting of dehumanizing treatment and abuse of the medicalization of natural processes. For more information, see the law to prevent, punish, and eradicate violence against women within the family and in interpersonal relations:

Lucia Alvarez (luciaalc(a)yahoo.com.ar) is an independent journalist in Buenos Aires and an analyst for the Americas Program (www.americasprogram.org) as well as an assistant with the International Political Program of the Public Policy Laboratory.