Hospital admissions arising from unsafe abortions in Argentina rose 50 percent in five years, and multiplied by a factor of 2.5 in some provinces -- a lethal consequence of the economic crisis and soaring poverty.
In 1995, some 53,000 hospital admissions due to complications caused by abortions practiced in unsanitary conditions were registered in this Southern Cone country of 37 million. By 2000, that number had climbed to 79,000, a 50 percent increase.
But the number of hospital admissions went up 148 percent in the western province of San Luis, 143 percent in the northwestern province of La Rioja, and 103 percent in the northern province of Santiago del Estero.
Abortion is illegal and punishable by prison in Argentina. Obstetricians say an increasing number of women are turning in desperation to self-induced or "home" abortions, frequently arriving at the hospital seriously ill, and risking the loss of their uterus and ovaries, and even death. Most are between the ages of 20 and 29, but there are many adolescents as well.
"We are witnessing an explosive social situation," Health Minister Gines Gonzalez Garcia told IPS on the eve of International Women's Day, which is commemorated on Mar. 8. "Hospital admissions arising from illegal abortions have risen to such an extent that we infer that we are looking at around 500,000 abortions a year, despite the fact that it is an illegal practice in Argentina," she said.
The minister, who recently began to implement a prevention programme, said that "behind this dramatic figure hide some 500 maternal deaths a year and around 16,000 cases of women who suffer serious permanent physical damage, such as the mutilation of their reproductive organs."
The top cause of maternal death in Argentina is abortion, a practice that accounts for "80 percent" of maternal mortality in the country, said the minister. In once-rich Argentina, maternal mortality is now higher than in several other Latin American countries. The rate stands at 35 maternal deaths for every 100,000 births, compared to 15.6 per 100,000 in Costa Rica, 22.3 in Chile and 29 in Uruguay.
Since maternal mortality is a phenomenon associated with poverty and unequal access to birth control methods, in some parts of the country with a higher proportion of poor inhabitants, maternal death rates are much higher: 78 per 100,000 births in the northeastern province of Formosa, for example. Although it is not news that unsafe abortions are the top cause of maternal mortality in Argentina, never before had such an alarming increase been seen in hospital admissions due to that cause.
However, statistics are only available up to 2000, and the economic collapse triggered in December 2001, when protests and rioting toppled then-president Fernando de la Rua, only aggravated the situation, Gonzalez Garciaa pointed out.
Since then, the poverty rate has risen from 45 to 54 percent of the population, mainly due to the growth of unemployment. Sociologist Silvina Ramos, the author of a book on the views of physicians towards birth control and abortion in Argentina, pointed out to IPS that the rise in the number of abortions was a consequence of "an increase in poverty and, thus, of the heightened difficulties of raising a new baby.
"Women find themselves having to turn more than before to abortions," which due to the soaring poverty "are practiced in riskier conditions, implying a greater number of deaths and health complications," said Ramos, with the Center of Studies on the State and Society.
A study carried out by Ramos found that access to contraception is markedly unequal in Argentina. While 66 percent of women in Latin America use birth control on average, the proportion ranges between 44 and 60 percent in Argentina, with a wide gap between women in lower and upper socioeconomic strata.
The clandestine nature of abortions in Argentina makes it difficult to obtain reliable statistics. But experts estimate the total by multiplying by seven the number of hospital admissions caused by unsafe abortions, which totalled 79,000 in 2000, giving rise to the estimate cited by the health minister: 500,000 abortions a year. In 2002, the government pushed through a law on sexual health and responsible family planning, which was staunchly resisted by groups linked to the Catholic Church.
The new law makes available family planning advice, assistance to adolescents, and free birth control. The professionals who will provide information on family planning and birth control to women and men on request began to receive special training this month.
The financing for the Health Ministry's new prevention programme should "cut in half, over the next five years, the number of illegal abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies," the health minister explained.
The implementation of the law "will help reduce unwanted pregnancies, maternal mortality, and the vulnerability of women to HIV/AIDS," activist Mabel Bianco, with the Foundation for Research on Women, and a former director of the National Plan for Prevention of AIDS, commented to IPS.
The prevention programme will "democratize information and access to birth control for all women, independently of their socioeconomic situation, even reaching the most dispossessed," Nora Rebora, the national director of Maternal-Child Health, noted in a conversation with IPS. Ramos is also confident that the law will reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and, in turn, of abortions, as access to information and contraception improves.
One outstanding success story is the Netherlands, which "has had very good programmes of birth control assistance and sex education for years, and now has the lowest abortion rate in the world," Ramos observed. Abortion was legalized in the Netherlands in the 1980s.
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