Argentineans Debate: So When Does Life Begin?

Silvia Augsburger, Orlando Flores Oviedo, Rodrigo Seminario y Jorge Baclini, expositores del seminario sobre aborto (Grupo Joven Fundación Libertad)
Silvia Augsburger, Orlando Flores Oviedo, Rodrigo Seminario, and Jorge Baclini, were guest speakers at the seminar on abortion. (Liberty Foundation Youth Group)

EspañolArgentina’s Liberty Foundation Youth Group hosted a seminar on Thursday, November 7, to prompt discussion of abortion. Meanwhile, Argentina’s Criminal Law Committee of the Chamber of Deputies continues to deliberate over new legislation that could decriminalize the practice in the country.

Youth Group member Martín Seminario coordinated the event, and sought to present both sides of the abortion coin: both the legal and philosophical discussion. The event hosted pro-choice speakers, as well as experienced medical professionals adverse to abortion.

Spanish Origins of Prohibition

To kick things off, renowned Argentinean prosecutor Jorge Baclini gave a brief history of abortion legislation. He explained that although the practice became punishable with the arrival of Christianity, “it was the Spanish Penal Code of 1882 that began to regulate abortion as we know it today. The Spanish pioneered the law, which has been copied by many other countries since its introduction.”

Baclini claimed that the introduction of the 1944 Franco Reform Code adopted fascist tendencies, punishing self-induced abortion by substance abuse and the sale of substances for that purpose. In 1985, Spain declared abortion a punishable offense while also clarifying certain legal exceptions for the procedure. The final reform came in 2010 with the regulation of life within the womb, incorporating a pregnancy timetable and corresponding food and drink prohibitions. As a result, abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy became legal in Spain.

“Moving on to the case of Argentina, we can say that the current legislation has been heavily influenced by the Spanish version. Abortion has always been punished, including in situations prior to the Criminal Code of 1921. This code distinguishes between coerced and consented-to abortion [although both remain illegal], and increases the severity of legal punishment for health professionals in the case of patient death,” he explained.

Present-day Argentinean legislation also provides exceptions for abortions deemed not worthy of punishment, although that is subject to a judge’s interpretation. Among these are therapeutic abortions (when giving birth puts the mother’s life at risk), those for women with mental problems, pregnancy by rape, and attempted self-induced abortion.

When Do We Acquire Rights?

“The problems start when we use the term conception,” Baclini said. “When does conception begin?”

“Two theories exist in the eyes of the law. One says that conception begins at fertilization, when the egg is fertilized, and from that point forward the fetus is protected. The other theory sustains that conception begins with implantation, and that abortion becomes punishable when the embryo adheres to the uterus. Now I will ask you, when does conception begin? That’s the problem,” he concluded.

Rodrigo J. Seminario, a lawyer and professor in the National University of Rosario Faculty of Law, zeroed in on what constitutes life as it relates to abortion. He addressed the legal status of an unborn person and international treaties that jibe abortion with every human’s right to life — a moral claim that must be protected at all costs.

“The 1871 Civil Code of Argentina considers a person to be any entity that demonstrates human characteristics. But the question that we must ask ourselves is for how long do human characteristics need to be present? This is where we must bear in mind that the concept of man has evolved significantly over the years… From Aristotle to Article 70 of the Argentinean Civil Code, through Roman Law and Canonical Law, there have existed many different ideas about what constitutes a person.”

Rodrigo Seminario and Jorge Baclini weigh in on abortion (Liberty Foundation Youth Group)
Rodrigo Seminario and Jorge Baclini. (Liberty Foundation Youth Group)

The Argentinean Civil Code dictates that existence begins with conception in a mother’s womb, and that a fetus does have some rights before being born.

“It’s important to define what we consider a person, because once you are a person you become subject to law and you have the right to life,” Seminario concluded.

After explaining the different stages of pregnancy, gynecologist Orlando Flores Oviedo emphasized the serious injuries that can result from abortion procedures.

“For doctors, abortion is the interruption of a pregnancy,” he began. “Given the advanced developmental stage of the fetus, it’s alarming that abortion isn’t punishable until week 14.” He warned that “abortion remains the leading cause of death among women.”

An Answer to the Conundrum?

Silvia Augsburger, a member of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion, a federal umbrella organization composed of 350 women’s associations, was next to present.

In addition to supporting voluntary abortion up to week 12, Augsburger’s campaign advocates for abortion in situations similar to those written into the Argentinean Criminal Code: “The slogan of our campaign is: sexual education to decide, contraceptives instead of abortion, and legal abortion to live.”

Silvia Augsburger, promotora de la Campaña Nacional por el Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito (Grupo Joven Fundación Libertad)
Silvia Augsburger, representative of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion. (Grupo Joven Fundación Libertad)

“Before 1960, our mothers and grandmothers aborted in the absence of contraceptives. Abortion was a necessary contraceptive measure,” Augsburger said. Today, about 500,000 abortions occur annually in Argentina, with more than 100 women dying each year as a result. In the city of Rosario alone, hospitals handle six abortions every day.

Noteworthy among Augsburger’s talking points were stories of young women who died because they were denied a legal abortion procedure. Argentina was even the subject of condemnation in 2011 from the UN Human Rights Commission. That was the LMR case, which withheld access to legal abortion from a mentally disabled teenager who had been raped by her uncle.

Given these events, the Argentinean Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that abortion is legal in the event of non-consensual sex, and that neither a court order nor police interference should prevent abortion under these circumstances.

“The question of when life begins is a philosophical discussion that can’t be resolved by a majority in the parliament. What is being discussed in the parliament is the state’s response to abortion,” concluded Augsburger.

In Argentina, the abortion debate remains far from closed as arguments for the practice remain as valid and compelling as those against it. In certain cases, the decision remains subject to the legal concept of what constitutes a person and conception. But more times than not, the practical verdict sides with the decision of the pregnant woman.

Knowing the inefficiency of Argentina’s Abortion Law, we must wonder if new abortion legislation should be preempted by reforms to the state’s adoption laws, which may provide desperate women with an alternative to the practice.

Translated by Peter Sacco. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

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