By Debbie Sharnak, Argentina-Paraguay country specialist and Magdalena Medley, Women’s Human Rights thematic specialist
A 27-year-old woman, known as Belén to protect her identity, has spent the past two years in pre-trial detention accused of self-inducting a miscarriage. After the accusations, Belén was arrested by authorities because abortion is illegal in Argentina except under certain circumstances. Belén, however, denies these allegations and tells a different story.
After suffering from abdominal pain, Belén went to her local hospital in the northern province of Tucumán, Argentina to be examined. The doctors referred her to a gynecologist after observing heavy bleeding. She was informed she was having a miscarriage after 22 weeks of pregnancy. Until this point, Belén was unaware of her pregnancy.
Events developed quickly after the initial exam. Belén had to undergo surgery and when she woke up, she was surrounded by police officers examining her privates. Hospital staff found a fetus in the bathroom and declared it must be Belén’s son, without doing a DNA test. That DNA test still has not been conducted. According to Belén, a nurse came to her with a fetus in a box and insulted her because of what “she had done to her son”.
The way Belén has been treated by the medical staff could amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Additionally, according to international law and standards, non-consensual disclosures of personal medical information, including to law enforcement officials, is a violation of the right to privacy. Medical professionals have an obligation to protect the confidentiality of the information to which they have access as part of their profession.
Belén has since been accused of having self-induced abortion and spent the last 2 years in pre–trial detention on charges of abortion that were later changed by the prosecution to charges of aggravated murder.
On 19 April 2016, the Third Chamber of the Criminal Chamber of Tucumán sentenced Belén to eight years in prison for murder and deferred its final arguments to 3 May. The Court has decided not to share its final arguments with the public.
Argentina has a partial ban on abortion, considered legal only when a pregnancy is the result of rape or poses a risk to the health or the life of the woman or girl. Even in those cases more than half of jurisdictions lack comprehensive hospital protocols that would guarantee access to legal abortion. There have been attempts to pass a new law that will decriminalize abortion but it has yet to be discussed at Congress.
Regardless of the legal status of abortion, both the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women hold that States have the obligation to ensure access to quality and confidential health services for the treatment of complications arising from unsafe abortions and miscarriages. This treatment must be free from discrimination, coercion, and violence.
Sexual and reproductive rights are protected under international and regional human rights law, which enshrine the right of people to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives, free from violence, coercion or discrimination and ensure that those decisions are respected. These include the rights to health, personal integrity, autonomy and equality, among others.
Belén needs your help now. We urge you to write in Spanish or your own language to the authorities in Argentina:
- Urging them to release Belén immediately and unconditionally, guaranteeing that no criminal process is conducted against her nor any other girl or woman who suffers a miscarriage or other obstetric complications;
- Calling on them to instruct health professionals to guarantee the doctor-patient duty of confidentiality and to guarantee mechanisms to sanction anyone who fails to protect women’s right to privacy;
- Urging the authorities to open a prompt, impartial and independent investigation into the allegations of ill-treatment and infringements on the right to privacy committed both by health professionals and police officers.
Read the full Urgent Action here.
Women and girls have the right to make informed decisions about their bodies without fear, violence or discrimination. Belén’s case is not an isolated incident; there are others around the world just like her. By speaking up for them, we can help them change their futures and guarantee their access to the right to health, personal integrity, autonomy and equality without fear of criminalization.