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Argentines on abortion legalisation: ‘I felt relieved’

The legalisation of abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy in Argentina on Wednesday triggered emotional scenes outside the Congress building in Buenos Aires.

Pro-choice activists embraced and cheered while waving the green handkerchiefs which have become symbolic of their decades-long fight for free and legal abortions to be made available to women across the country.

Anti-abortion demonstrators meanwhile watched dejected as the bill was passed in the Senate, the last step needed for it to become law.

Until now, abortions had only been permitted in cases of rape or when the mother’s health was at risk. Without access to legal abortions, tens of thousands of women had clandestine abortions each year often performed by people not medically qualified.

Journalist Jeevan Ravindran asked a selection of Argentine women to reflect on what the change in the law means to them.

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Metal craftswoman, 42 years old

Carmen Dolores Piñeiro and her friend and daughter at a pro-choice march

image copyrightCourtesy of Carmen Dolores Piñeiro

“Abortion should have been legalised a long time ago,” says Carmen Dolores Piñeiro, who had her first abortion when she was 16.

She says she was lucky that doctors agreed to perform the abortion clandestinely in a hospital, and it went well.

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Years later, she had a “backstreet abortion” which she describes as a “terrifying experience”. “I was unconscious, so I don’t really know what happened, I just know that when I woke up, I wasn’t pregnant anymore.”

She is confident that legalisation will improve things. “To have an abortion will never not be difficult, it’s always going to be a difficult decision to make,” she says. “But legalisation will make it much better.”

Carmen is aware that while the legislation may have changed, people’s attitudes may take longer to shift. “One thing is the law, another is society, which can be harsh and unsympathetic.”

Legalisation to her is a huge step forwards: “It’s very moving. Before, doctors [who carried out clandestine abortions] and women [who had them] were both labelled criminals.”

“Now for the rest of Latin America!”

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Anti-abortion campaigner and church volunteer, 25 years old

Belu Lombardi holds a sing reading "Feminism didn't set me free, Christ did"

image copyrightCourtesy of Belu Lombardi

For Belu Lombardi, one of the anti-abortion activists who demonstrated outside Congress on the night of the vote, the legalisation of abortion has come as a bitter disappointment which she promises to fight against.

“Yesterday I cried many tears. Legalising abortion is a crime, it’s disastrous and it’s unacceptable,” she argues.

“We want abortion to become unthinkable. And I know that we’ll get there some day. The truth is that good always triumphs over evil.”

Belu Lombardi says that even though as a teenager she rebelled against her Catholic parents and became pregnant by her then-boyfriend, abortion was never an option she had considered.

“I never thought about it, it never even occurred to me,” she recalls.

To her surprise, the Catholic Church she had been rebelling against supported her. “They dispelled the myths and prejudices I had towards the Catholic Church and helped me get through my pregnancy with much love and happiness.”

She argues that the legalisation of abortion masks and further deepens underlying problems society is not tackling such as domestic violence, sexual exploitation and paternal abandonment.

Belu says she is also worried about the effects on women. “Abortion not only kills a child, but also destroys the woman, because it has psychological, physical and emotional consequences.”

She says she is determined to continue campaigning against abortion: “No-one is giving up here!”

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Cleaner and student from Buenos Aires, 27 years old

Photo of the nightgown Maria wore on the day she had an abortion

image copyrightCourtesy of Maria

“I felt relieved. Not only because there’s no need for clandestine abortions anymore but because it was a long struggle that finally produced a result,” María says of the grassroots feminist movement which campaigned for the change in the law.

María, who has three children and lost a fourth who was born prematurely, has had personal experience of the difficulties which have until now faced women getting an abortion in Argentina.

Two months ago, she decided to have an abortion after getting out of a violent relationship with the father of her children, with whom she had spent 12 years.

“Those years were honestly really difficult, years of being beaten, of chasing after an addict. It was a very complicated situation.”

Before the new law was passed, abortions were only allowed in Argentina in certain restricted cases, including rape or when the mother’s life was in danger. María’s situation – based on her emotional and physical health, as well as her financial instability – was deemed precarious and she was allowed to proceed with an abortion.

She says that the medical team at the health centre she first attended was a huge help. But when her medical abortion was unsuccessful, she was referred to a hospital for a surgical abortion.

“When I arrived at the hospital, the situation changed completely,” she recalls. She describes her treatment there as “mistreatment”.

“They put me in a room next to the labour ward. For around 12 hours I was listening to the sounds of labour.”

María alleges that she was put in the room on purpose by doctors who did not want to take her to the operating theatre, instead insisting on trying to induce a medical abortion.

“There are no words to describe how it feels to be going through such a process whilst being right next to the delivery room, listening to everything.

“It’s very, very painful to not only go through a process which is physically and psychologically damaging, but to also suffer marginalisation, discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of doctors,” she says.

She says she hopes the new law will also result in a wider change of attitude. “My biggest hope is that no more women will have to die [as a result of clandestine abortions], that sex education is taught in every last corner of the country so that women don’t have to resort to abortions, and that women will no longer be judged or mistreated by health workers.”

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