One day in the chilly Tierra del Fuego fall, Paula walked into a primary care center to terminate her pregnancy. The staff gave her pills of the abortion drug Misoprostol, and she carried out the procedure at home.
A few days later, she started to feel pain. She walked back to the clinic, which sent her to Río Grande’s only public hospital for post-abortion medical care. It was April 2021, and abortion had been legal throughout Argentina for any reason for nearly four months. But the staff refused to treat her.
Desperate, she found feminist organizations that advocated for her. It took over a week for medics to provide her with the care she was legally entitled to. Paula (not her real name) is just one of many women who have been denied abortion-related care in Río Grande Regional Hospital since the procedure was legalized two years ago today.
Their experiences show that in practice, the right to abortion does not yet exist in the city of Río Grande.
Today marks two years since the Senate voted to legalize elective abortion in Argentina. The law allows any pregnant person to request the procedure, free of charge, in a public or private hospital, in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. To make it accessible everywhere, the law dictates that there must be at least one medic who is not a conscious objector in every hospital. But stories like Paula’s show that this isn’t always respected in practice.
Río Grande is the biggest city in Tierra del Fuego, with a population of around 100,000. It has just one public hospital, and even though it is legally required to offer terminations, not a single doctor there is willing to perform abortions, according to a report by rights watchdog Amnesty International and the feminist organization Peste Rosa.
In the first year and a half after abortion was legalized, over 100,000 pregnancies were legally terminated across the country. But, because the 13 obstetrician-gynecologists working at Río Grande Regional Hospital are conscious objectors, women cannot exercise their right to end a pregnancy there.
After the law passed, the protocols established that pregnant women can request abortions in primary care centers up to week 12, but must go to hospitals after that. Since Río Grande Regional Hospital does not offer the procedure, anyone in the city seeking a termination after 12 weeks must travel 200km (124 miles) to Ushuaia to access the procedure.
Amnesty is aware of at least 34 women who have had to make the trip to Ushuaia so far. The local government provides financial aid to those who don’t have private health coverage so they can afford the trip, which costs approximately AR$6,500.
The situation has increased the demand for abortion in Ushuaia by 50%, putting extra pressure on the city’s public system. Tierra del Fuego’s Health Ministry is trying to hire doctors willing to perform abortions in Río Grande, but so far, no one has responded to their calls.
The lack of doctors willing to perform abortions in Río Grande reflects broader problems with hostility to reproductive rights in the city. Groups that oppose reproductive rights conduct misleading campaigns to discourage women from terminating their pregnancies. Natacha Sandoval, a member of abortion support network, Socorristas en Red, told The Buenos Aires Herald that anti-rights aggression has also discouraged doctors at healthcare centers from staying in their jobs and providing abortions in the past.
“We started getting calls from pregnant people seeking help,” Sandoval said in an interview. “The obstetrician-gynecologist service in the Regional Hospital is the issue – and the only option left is to travel to Ushuaia, a hospital that has basically the same resources but doesn’t lack doctors willing to perform abortions.”
Socorristas en Red is a feminist organization that helped women seek abortions before the law was passed, and now focuses on ensuring the law is guaranteed for everyone in Argentina. Since they identified the problem in Río Grande, they have met with the city’s authorities to seek solutions, but so far, no structural changes have been made since.
In the meantime, feminists across the country will keep organizing so everybody’s reproductive rights are respected, just as they did before abortion was legalized two years ago today.