‘The stigma has returned’: abortion access in turmoil in Javier Milei’s Argentina

Javier Milei’s anti-abortion rhetoric has led to more and more doctors in Argentina refusing to perform abortions, according to medical professionals across the country.

Since taking office in December, the self-described libertarian has delivered speeches to world leaders and schoolchildren alike to condemn abortion as a “tragedy” and “grave murder.”

Health professionals say such statements have already encouraged providers to refuse abortion services because of their personal beliefs, warning that they could push women to use clandestine methods instead.

At a hospital on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Julieta Bazán, a doctor, said Milei’s comments have caused a spike in the number of doctors refusing to perform abortions.

“It has a very negative impact,” Bazán said. “The stigma among professionals has increased – they are afraid to be part of abortion teams.”

In Tucumán, in the north of the country, health workers said they were preparing for an increase in clandestine abortions.

“Women ask that their names not be used or refuse to provide identity numbers to access abortions. They are afraid of where their data will be stored – that didn’t happen before,” said Ivana Romero, an abortion counselor. “Some don’t want to go to the hospital. We worry about a comeback of unsafe abortions.”

Verónica Gago, a researcher and member of the feminist movement #NiUnaMenos, said that while Milei had not yet initiated plans to reverse access to abortion, his public health cuts are affecting the availability of abortion pills. His first “mega-decree” of draft law price ceilings and controls removed of drug prices.

“We are receiving reports that some hospitals are not dispensing abortion medications because of his cuts,” Gago said. “Milei’s discourse, combined with government budget cuts, seeks to delegitimize abortion rights.”

Until Argentina legalized abortion in 2020 following widespread protests, the procedure was only allowed in cases of rape or if the woman’s health was at risk.

During his campaign, Milei said pro-choice Argentinians have been “brainwashed by murderous policies” and promised to launch a referendum to overturn the abortion law. Since the election, his rhetoric has not calmed down.

The president spoke earlier this month told a room full of schoolchildren that abortion should be considered ‘aggravated murder’ because of the ‘familial bond’ between mother and fetus.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, Milei told world leaders that abortion is a “tragedy.”.

The abortion advice service Fundacion Mujeres by Mujereswhich operates in Tucumán, said it had seen a 42% increase in the number of women seeking advice, compared to February 2024 and February 2023. Many of the women had read misinformation online that abortion is now illegal, or that this told by doctors. .

“Over the past four months, many women have been wrongly informed by doctors and nurses that they cannot have an abortion,” said Florencia Sabaté, spokesperson for the organization. “The women say they are scared. They think they have no choice now.”

She added: “The stigma has returned.”

“Since Milei won, for the first time we have seen women knocking on our door asking if they can have an abortion. They do it out of shame, out of fear for their doctors, out of fear for their families,” Sabate said.

The NGO is now restructuring itself and will visit communities from April together with a lawyer to promote that abortions are still legal. “It’s like an earthquake – suddenly we have no structures left to work with,” Sabaté said. “We have to go back to basics.”

The National Campaign for the Right to Legal Abortion also said it was “ready to fight back”. “Decades of struggle to put the right to safe abortion on the political agenda have not been in vain,” a spokesperson said.

But questions remain about whether the self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist will push through with his agenda.

In February, Rocío Bonacci, a member of Milei’s party, caused controversy when she introduced a bill to Congress to repeal the existing abortion law. The bill fell flat, with the presidential spokesperson saying it was not “on the president’s agenda.”

“It was a provocation, they just wanted to be offensive,” Gago said.

Political analysts say Milei faces bigger problems at the moment inflation rises to over 250% and poverty almost 60%. Initiating a referendum would also risk sparking conflict with his political allies considered crucial to achieving his economic agenda, some experts say.

“Milei is a populist, which means he can use this kind of debate to create an internal enemy or keep the public away from the economic situation,” said Julio Montero, associate professor of political theory at the University of San Andrés.

Paula Avila-Guillen, a human rights attorney and executive director of the Women’s Equality Center, agreed.

“Abortion and women’s rights are unfortunately always used as a distraction,” she said. “The moment Milei can’t fix the economy, the first thing he’s going to do is talk about abortion, because that’s where the press and social media attention will go – it’s something we see very often, everywhere.”