No going back: The two sides in Argentina's abortion debate

By Katy Watson
BBC South America correspondent, Buenos Aires

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe green kerchief is worn by pro-choice activists of all ages

It is the middle of winter in Buenos Aires, but a spring-like green has blossomed in the city in recent months.

Everywhere you go, you see women wearing emerald pañuelos (bandanas) around their necks, wrapped around their wrists, or tied to their bags.

The bandanas are the symbol of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion which started in 2005.

Since then, it has introduced seven bills to Congress. For years, its supporters got nowhere.

But that all changed earlier this year when President Mauricio Macri, who himself opposes abortion, called for Congress to debate the latest bill.

image copyrightReuters
image captionPro-choice campaigners decorated the subway in Buenos Aires with green ribbons

The pace at which things have moved since has surprised everyone, and the green bandana has also come to represent a peaceful resistance by a growing women's rights movement which argues that society needs to change.

Currently abortion is only allowed in Argentina in cases of rape, or if the mother's health is in danger. The bill asks for the practice to be legalised in all circumstances in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

In June, the lower house narrowly passed it in a marathon debate that lasted nearly 24 hours while hundreds of thousands of women held a vigil outside.

Now, as Argentina's Senate prepares to vote later on Wednesday, women are getting ready for another long and cold night outside the Congress building.

'Treated like a criminal'

Ana Correa will be there, wearing her green pañuelo with pride.

image copyrightReuters
image captionActivists also dressed up as characters from The Handmaid's Tale to show their opposition to the current restrictive abortion law

Eleven years ago, when she was three months pregnant with her second child, she discovered the baby had Edwards' syndrome (a serious genetic disorder), and doctors told her it would never live beyond birth.

"I decided to end the pregnancy. It didn't make any sense to prolong the pain," she tells me.

"I went to a doctor who was very close to the Church and he suggested that I continue with the pregnancy, so that I would be able to hug my dead baby."

"He said that that was all the help he could offer me."

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Ana felt she had little option but to turn to those who carry out abortions clandestinely.

At the first place she went to, the person examining her discovered a tumour on her uterus. The "doctor" was anything but sympathetic. He told her she would have to pay him thousands of dollars to carry out the abortion and remove the tumour. If she did not, she would die and leave her little boy an orphan, he told her.

"He was so brutal, I walked away," she says.

At the next clinic she went to, Ana was warned she would have to lie to anyone who asked her about the clandestine procedure. "It felt so unfair," she recalls. "There I was, in enormous pain, and they were treating me as if I was a criminal."

Bleeding and alone

Ana felt she had nowhere left to turn, and eventually gave up on trying to find a place where they would perform the abortion.

When she went back to hospital for her next pregnancy scan, the doctors found that the baby's heart was no longer beating. But her ordeal was not over yet.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThose supporting the bill say it will prevent deaths from illegal abortions gone wrong

"The doctor said nobody would help me," she recounts. The only thing they did was to prescribe misoprostol, the drug used to provoke abortions, but then she was sent home with the words: "When you're bleeding heavily, come back."

She returned, haemorrhaging. But she survived - and wants to tell her story and campaign for the bill so others do not go through the same ordeal.

Tens of thousands of women in Argentina are taken to hospital every year after illegal abortions. In 2016, 43 women died.

Sceptics say President Macri only backed this abortion debate to take people's minds off Argentina's troubled economy. But few doubt that the growing feminist movement has helped push the debate up the political agenda.

"When people said this was a smoke screen to distract from other things that are going on, the girls said: 'We are not the smoke, we are the fire'," says journalist Marina Abiuso.

"If we got to this point, it's because of the power of the people on the streets," Ms Abiuso, who has been a leading figure in recent pro-choice demonstrations, says.

But the bill is strongly opposed by the Catholic Church and Pope Francis.

Father Guillermo Marcó is the former spokesman of the Argentine pontiff. "Abortion is not a solution for the mother or for the unborn child," he argues.

image captionFather Guillermo Marcó argues that life starts at conception and has to be protected

"Pope Francis has the same opinion as any other Christian who defends life from the moment of conception."

"Politically, he does not agree with President Macri's approach, which is letting people decide. In life there are principles and values - it's not about opinions."

'Selfish cause'

Since the lower house passed the bill in June, religious groups have stepped up their efforts to prevent it becoming law.

image copyrightEPA
image captionSince the bill was passed in the lower house, those opposed to it have stepped up their campaign

Jael Ojuel is a doctor and an evangelical. She publishes videos on social media, preaching and advising women about what she believes is their purpose in life.

She says that if abortion becomes legal, she will become a conscientious objector and refuse to perform abortions. "The rights of a woman end when the rights of the embryo or the foetus that's growing start," she argues.

"I'm a feminist too," she says of the women's rights movement. "But they are promoting such a selfish cause, this idea of 'my body, I decide'. No, we have to be feminist for those who are fighting, the adults, but also for the women who are being formed."

One way or another, the tide is changing in Argentina.

"I don't know what's going to happen," says Ms Abiuso of Wednesday's vote. "But we're not going back to making this a taboo."

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