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Argentina’s Doctors Perform Half a Million Illegal Abortions a Year, But Legalization Still Seems Unlikely

As many as 500,000 abortions happen in Argentina each year, but no one is really counting. The government is opposed to legalization, but that hasn't stopped doctors from offering abortions within a legal loophole.
Imagen por Kamilia Lahrichi/VICE News

Doctor German Pablo Cardoso's values are above the law.

The gynecologist has been performing illegal abortions for fifteen years in Argentina, a highly Catholic nation with strict anti-abortion laws. He's had his phones tapped and his clinic raided by police, but that hasn't stopped him.

"In Argentina, the doctor is always right, as he is the one who determines if the woman can get an abortion or not," Cardoso said.


"Pregnancy is risky for the health of all my patients, because it is undesired," he added.

Cardoso's position highlights a moral and legal gray area in Argentina, where abortion is only legal when a doctor diagnoses a pregnancy as detrimental to a woman's health, or in the case of a rape of a mentally ill woman.

But police must find a person performing an abortion in order to prove that it took place, giving Argentine doctors a loophole to operate — although with accompanying pressure from authorities.

The Argentine penal code punishes those who perform illegal consensual abortions with up to four years of prison, even if the woman consented to the operation.

An estimated half a million illegal abortions take place in Argentina every year, Human Rights Watch estimated in 2009, comprising 40 percent of all pregnancies. However, that figure hasn't been updated in six years.

'What is bad is that it is illegal. It makes you feel guilty and ashamed.'

Cardoso opened a clinic to perform abortions in December 2010 in Boedo, a working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood. Soon after, he claims the police wiretapped his phone to monitor his activities.

Police raided his clinic in April 2011, a few months after he opened. A woman who received an abortion had just left. After spending two days in police custody, Cardoso closed his clinic and returned to his hometown of Tandil, a small city in the southwest of Buenos Aires province.


He continues to provide abortions there, because he says police do not persecute him, letting him perform about 40 operations a month. He says he offers what amounts to a public service, openly discussing abortions on his website and performing abortions for women who might otherwise turn to possibly dangerous clandestine clinics.

"There was a strong demand [in the capital] because there are a lot of clandestine people, who aren't doctors, and who perform abortions in awful places," Cardoso told VICE News, recalling the start of his practice.

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Dr. German Pablo Cardoso. (Photo by Kamilia Lahrichi)

Abortion Is For 'Whores'

Although a debate to legalize abortion has been going on for years, it barely advances beyond committees in Argentina's Congress. Abortions in the country continue underground.

"Unfortunately, although the Supreme Court reiterated [that rape and health risks are the two conditions to get a legal abortion], this is not true because the ministry of health has not ratified the protocol that regulates [its] implementation," said Mabel Bianco, President of the Foundation for the Education and Study of Women, a non-governmental organization in Buenos Aires.

The election of an Argentine pope, Francis, has further strengthened Catholic fervor in the South American country.

'Thinking that abortion is the solution to rape is a mistake.'

Aixa Garcia Avellaneda, an activist on gender issues, recalled with pain the "traumatizing" experience that was the abortion she got at 16, on the kitchen table of a house in Barrio Norte, a high-end neighborhood in the capital.


"I am and I was the victim of the lack of information [on reproduction health] and the lack of access to contraception as an adolescent," Garcia said.

When she told her mother the news, Aixa's mother slapped her, called her a "whore" and said she would send her to a convent.

Another woman named Maria found it easy to end her unwanted pregnancy, but told VICE News guilt accompanied her operation.

"It is not so bad to get an abortion," said the woman, 30, who is from a well-off family in the provincial city of Quilmes. "What is bad is that it is illegal. It makes you feel guilty and ashamed."

The ease and safety in which an abortion is performed depend on the woman's socio-economic background. For Dr. Cardoso, the minimum cost for the operation is 20,000 pesos, or about $2,300, although he claims other doctors charge more than twice that.

"I adapt to a woman's situation," he said.

Yet the health risks surrounding illegal abortions are high. The first cause of maternal mortality in Argentina is related to unsafe abortion, up to 31 percent of maternal deaths. Equally worrisome, 15 percent of children are born to girls under 20 year old, according to a 2013 UNICEF report.

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The debate over legalizing abortion has split the country. This is not a battle between secularists and Catholics only.

"The reality is that women get abortions," said Victoria Tesoriero, who is in charge of the Buenos Aires-based organization Catholics for the Right to Decide. It is a liberal Catholic organization in favor of legalizing abortion.


"The penalization of abortion does not impede its practice, so the law does not help women," she told VICE News. "We believe that it is women's right, and the church should not intervene because it is matter of public health."

On the other hand, secular organizations in Argentina have fought against the legalization of abortion. Frente Joven is a group radically opposed to abortion, even in cases of rape.

"Abortion is a social tragedy and we all need to help so that a woman in this situation can move forward with her life and her child's life," said Gustavo Mellado, Communication Coordinator of Frente Joven, Spanish for the "Youth Front."

It is a nonsectarian and apolitical movement of volunteers that seeks to build "a society with more dignity."

A landmark legal battle over abortion occurred in March 2012, when Argentina's Supreme Court allowed a 15-year old girl who was raped by her stepfather to get an abortion. The case was hailed as a milestone.

But for people who hold Mellado's view, that decision was an error.

"Thinking that abortion is the solution to rape is a mistake," Mellado told VICE News in his office, a few blocks away from the national Congress. "The only thing it does is transfer the violence that the woman suffered to the child, and this constitutes a cycle of violence."

It is unlikely that the abortion debate will reach any sort of consensus ahead of the October 2015 presidential election, since the political arena is divided.


President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner strongly opposes legalizing abortion.

Nevertheless, every year, pro-abortion organizations and deputies propose a draft law to legalize it until the 12th week of pregnancy, led by National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, a broad alliance of over 300 organizations in Argentina.

"The main problem is the lack of political will of the government and the resistance and opposition of social forces, like religious sectors among others," explains Bianco, president of the Foundation for the Education and Study of Women.

"[W]e have to acknowledge that Argentina is a country in which sectors like the military, the unions, the religious and the businesses had and still have much influence on who decides," she said.

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