Socorristas en Red

Argentina's Underground Abortion Network Won't Let a Pandemic Get in Its Way

Coronavirus has upended the intimate work of Socorristas en Red, a collective of volunteers who help women get abortions. But it hasn't changed their ultimate goal: a dramatic cultural shift in how Argentina treats women seeking to end their pregnancies.
August 5, 2020, 4:16pm

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — At least twice a week, an email lands in Julia Burton’s inbox with information on two women she does not know.

It includes their names. Their ages. Where they live. And a few details that gave rise to their call for help. Namely, that they are pregnant and want to have an abortion.

“Hello, I’m Julia from Socorristas,” Burton will type in WhatsApp to the phone number that came with the email. “When can we talk?”

This is the start of an important relationship for both Burton and the person on the other end of the message. Under ordinary circumstances, they would have met in person. But the pandemic that has sewn chaos on a global scale has also upended the intimate work of Socorristas en Red, a network of volunteers who provide guidance and support as women undergo abortions in Argentina.

And even though less of their work is happening in-person, Burton and her fellow Socorristas en Red are still providing an invaluable service to women in the country. They’re a voice at a distance, that assures the caller that she is not alone.

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Julia Burton, a member of the Socorristas en Red. (Photo: Camila Ostrower)

In Argentina, abortion is both legal and illegal. It is free and accessible for some people, and a labyrinthine journey full of roadblocks for others. In the worst of circumstances, it can kill you. 

The Argentine criminal code considers abortion a crime that comes with jail time for the woman and the doctor, unless the pregnant person has been raped or the pregnancy poses a risk to their health or life. The national Ministry of Health defines a risk to health as physical, mental, or social, allowing for a broad range of scenarios that could fall under what is officially called a Legal Interruption of Pregnancy.

But that definition is not universally applied. Not all provinces have adopted the national protocol, and doctors who invoke conscientious objection, or who only acknowledge physical health risks, make it difficult to access a legal service in some parts of the country. Women are told to think it through, are stonewalled, or are outright refused.

It was one such case that landed in the care of La Revuelta, a feminist collective in the province of Neuquen, in Argentina’s southern Patagonia region, in 2008. They accompanied a young couple as the pair sought an abortion, and witnessed gaping holes in the system that put people at risk. That was the impetus for the first Socorro Rosa in Argentina in 2010, a form of accompaniment modeled after the work of feminists in Italy, France, and the US in the 1970s.

Ten years later, Socorristas en Red (translated into Network of Rescuers) has grown into a network of 54 collectives spanning the length of the country. It includes 503 activists — three quarters of whom are between the ages of 20 and 35. 

They provide information designed by the World Health Organization on how to administer a pharmaceutical abortion with the drug misoprostol. They try to remove the barriers that would get in the way of a woman exercising her right by connecting her with “friendly” doctors who will help. They also conduct detailed surveys of the women who have aborted and what they have encountered.

But their work is perhaps most defined by the act of being present and available at all hours of the day for the woman as she undergoes the procedure. The objective is to transform abortion into an experience that is defined by affection and care.

In the six years that the network has collected data, Socorristas en Red have supported more than 32,000 Argentine women through an abortion. In 2019 alone, they accompanied 12,575 women as they terminated pregnancies.

The pandemic has not silenced the calls; the numbers are already tracking to be more this year than last. Stay at home orders that have stretched on for months have added another layer of complexity for women who find themselves with undesired pregnancies. Socorristas had to regroup and adapt. They’ve exchanged in-person group meet-ups for video calls and virtual embraces; they’ve troubleshooted as necessary, appealing, for example, to local health authorities to ensure prescriptions are being filled out properly. The act of listening has become all the more crucial.

“We do this because we want abortion to leave the place of criminalization, penalization, of silence. To leave the area of death, which it has been tied to because of unsafe clandestine abortions,” said Ruth Zurbriggen, 54, an activist and researcher with La Revuelta, and one of the founding members of Socorristas en Red. 

“Going through that situation accompanied by someone is much more healing than if you are alone, if you don’t know what is going to happen, if you don’t have someone on the other side that you can talk to.”

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Ruth Zurbriggen, a member of La Revuela feminist collective and Socorristas en Red, a group that helps women in Argentina abort. Photo courtesy of Archivo SenRed.

When Catalina Silvero found out in mid 2019 that she was pregnant, she knew immediately that she wanted to have an abortion. Unlike her first pregnancy, the 35-year-old never felt a connection to the process unfolding in her body. Living in San Nicolas de los Arroyos, on the banks of the Parana River in the province of Buenos Aires, she turned to the internet to figure out her options. It was a deluge of information, and she wondered about its credibility. If she bought medication online, would it work? If it didn’t, what could happen? The days ticked by and Silvero’s situation became more urgent.

“I needed to look someone in the face, who could tell me, yes, this is how it is, and this is the way,” she said. That’s when she was put in touch with Chanas San Nicolas, a feminist collective that is part of Socorristas en Red. She heard back within 24 hours.

“I remember that I started to cry,” she said. “That’s never happened to me, crying on the phone without even knowing who it is that I’m speaking to, but that person is offering you so much support, it’s like you just collapse.”

Socorristas talk about a series of “moments” that define the accompaniment that they do. The first is here, when they make that initial contact with the person who is inquiring about an abortion through one of their hotlines.

In non-pandemic times, this leads to an in-person workshop with other women. It can be just a handful of women along with socorristas who are accompanying them, or larger groups. The workshops occur in parks, bars, community centers, or theatre spaces. They are deliberately somewhere in the open, rather than in the shadows. This is as much an opportunity for women to share their personal stories, as it is to provide information about the process ahead.

“Something happens there that is very hard to describe in words,” said Burton, with Socorristas en Red in the capital city of Buenos Aires. “Suddenly, the woman realizes that she is not the only one this has happened to, she isn’t the only one who is afraid. Every story is individual but in that setting, something collective sprouts up.”

These sessions can stretch on for hours.

“The things that we have heard in the workshops,” said Zurbriggen. “Women who come along to support their teenage daughters during their abortion, and for the first time, they talk about their abortion, there, in front of their daughter, who has to abort.” Or women, in their late 30s and early 40s, who are there because of their daughters — daughters who are part of a resurgent feminist movement in Argentina and who have passed along the Socorristas’ phone numbers to their mothers who want to abort.

These are the moments that socorristas have been missing most during the pandemic, and the government imposed social isolation. The collective embrace has been replaced with longer phone calls. It may be in the middle of the night if no one else in the household knows, or at other odd hours when the woman can carve out a few moments of privacy. The accompaniment has continued because the Socorristas already had well-established networks and forms of communicating that allowed them to be present even from a distance. Still, there have been moments of anxiety around ensuring problems get solved.

“Yesterday, a young woman that I was accompanying said she couldn’t stop being afraid. So I would send her messages, and tell her about all the women who had done it and who had been fine, and that the medication was very safe,” said Zurbriggen. “She ended up saying to me, the only thing I want to do right now is leave my house so I can give you a hug. It’s that sensation that they feel that we are, in some way, that we are close.”

In Silvero’s case, the socorristas realized that she was going through the abortion alone, so they knocked on her door and were on-hand as she administered misoprostol.

“They had brought cool drinks because it was a hot day. There was something normal, and everyday about it. No drama, no suspense, no horror movie. Nothing at all. We were just in my house, chatting, as if we were friends,” she said.

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An activist with Socorristas en Red, a group that helps women abort, marches in La Plata, Argentina, during the annual Plurinational Gathering of Women, Lesbians, Travestis, Trans and Non Binary People in October 2019. Photo courtesy of Archivo SenRed.

Women in Argentina have been campaigning to legalize abortion more broadly for decades. In 2015, a movement against high rates of violence against women called #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less) provided new fuel for the feminist movement, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the streets, and setting the stage for what would come in 2018: a debate in Congress on a bill to legalize abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The bill was approved in the Lower House of Deputies, but failed in the Senate. Still, feminists succeeded in dramatically shifting the conversation in Argentina.

Two years after that historic debate, President Alberto Fernandez is set to sponsor a bill to legalize elective abortion here. It is an unprecedented level of political support for legalization, but the bill will still confront stiff opposition from religious-based sectors, in particular the Catholic Church and Pope Francis, an Argentine.

“The president has expressed it much better than I can: we want to avoid the preventable deaths of women,” Vilma Ibarra, a prominent member of Fernandez’s team and his legal and technical advisor, said in a recent televised interview. “Today, we’re in the worst of all the worlds. Abortions are happening in the hundreds of thousands, and women die in clandestine abortions, because they’re threatened with the prospect of jail.”

Monica Menini, a lawyer in the northern province of Salta and a member of the national campaign to legalize abortion, said while there are regions with broad access to legal abortion, there are others where entire hospitals will register as conscientious objectors.

Legalization of elective abortion feels “closer than ever,” she said, and it will change the landscape dramatically in Argentina.

“For many people it’s hard to understand what is legally allowed right now. We speak about it calmly, but it’s not that simple. Many women tell us, I thought it was illegal,” she said. “What we’re missing is to be able to go into a hospital and when a doctor asks why we’re getting an abortion, we can say, because it’s my choice, and nothing more.”

Socorristas en Red is part of this cultural shift. Back when they started, that initial group of activists in Neuquen collaborated on a theatre production that told their story. They would pile into a car a few weekends a month, and head out to different cities for the show, and to talk about socorrismo. It was a key way in which the collective grew. Now at massive feminist rallies, they are the group wearing pink wigs, something that captures the visibility they’re after.

Behind the scenes, the work is endless. Socorristas are constantly on the lookout for doctors who are allies, showing up for appointments with the sole purpose of seeing how many women they could send the doctor’s way. If someone can’t afford a prescription, they guide her to a public hospital that will provide it.

The barriers persist. In San Nicolas, there is just one doctor who is open to providing legal abortions. Silvero said there is a lot of misinformation about how far the law goes, and fear among health professionals.

When she sought an ultrasound after her abortion, she had to conjure tears and say she had suffered a miscarriage. “Because you can’t say you had a medical abortion at home,” said Silvero, who is now a socorrista herself. It’s important for her to highlight that it’s not just young people seeking help from her group, but women like her, who are already mothers. She tries to put herself back in those shoes, providing information she had been unable to find until the Socorristas.

Being a socorrista “widens my existence,” said Zurbriggen, the second of eight children. She often wonders, how many of those eight did her mother choose? She has reflected on her own life, too. “I didn’t abort because I wasn’t brave enough,” she said, something she was able to talk with her daughter about and that she considers a milestone in her motherhood.

“I learn so many things from the women we accompany, from that tiny piece of their lives that they share with us,” she said. “And I learn that abortion is always going to be an enigma. Always. Because it’s a very powerful decision.”