Tucumán’s abortion trials placed in spotlight
Rights groups hail the release of ‘Belén’ — but activists say the problems in the province run deeperAn online campaign, in the wake of the temporary release of a prisoner from jail, is seeking to build momentum and pile pressure on the authorities in Tucumán province, while abortion rights are currently high on the national agenda.
“The #YoSoyBelén (“I am Belén”) campaign is aimed at the medical and judicial staff who displayed intent to violate ‘Beléns’ privacy, and at showing that all women, any of us could be ‘Belén,” said Alejandra del Castillo, a member of a campaign group who battled for the 27-year-old’s release from jail, in conversation with the Herald.
Del Castillo was addressing the recent social media campaign that was launched in order to build awareness about health rights and the victim’s recent experiences in the northern province.
“Belén”, a pseudonym used to hide the identity of the young woman, spent more than two years in jail before finally being freed last Thursday. She was imprisoned after suffering a miscarriage, but faced trial after being accused of homicide, of murdering her child, despite a lack of any clear evidence.
Del Castillo, part of a group of activists campaigning for her release vowed to continue fighting to overturn her conviction.
“Supporting ‘Belén’s’ release, we must win her acquittal. We stress that all women are as vulnerable as her in this context,” said del Castillo, one of the main organizers of recent demonstrations demanding her release on August 12.
Those backing Belén are ready for the fight. After she was freed this week, her lawyer, Soledad Deza, stated that “‘Bélén’ has gone through a process of recovery and strengthening after moral self-incrimination. She is strong now — not to beg for justice, but so as to demand it.”
For the activists, “Belén” embodies an extreme expression of the institutional violence facing women who suffer complications during pregnancy in the region of Tucumán. Experts told the Herald that there is a considerably high number of cases regarding alleged abortions that end up in court.
“There is a systematic pattern of human rights violations in the district relating to women, reflecting an agreement between the healthcare system and the judiciary to criminalize women who face pregnancy complications,” said Mariana Álvarez, a professor of human rights at University of Tucumán and member of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH).
Research investigating criminal cases between 1992 and 2012 shows that nine percent of judicial cases (or 46) still opened in the province involving abortion (of a total of 506) were related to reasons which fall outside the framework of the national Criminal Code, such as miscarriage, those that involved natural complications, terminations that were not induced and attempted abortions. And over the four-year period of 2008 to 2012, the average of cases which remain open regarding criminalization of pregnancies that were interrupted naturally increased, reaching 26.31 percent, or 20 cases from a total of 76.
“None of these cases constitutes a crime. We are not talking about isolated acts ... it was a systematic operating procedure of criminalizing poor women in the district,” stated Álvarez, who co-authored with Alejandra Iriarte and Soledad Deza the book, Jaque a la reina (“Checkmate the queen”), in which the research was included.
The study also reveals that a great number of those cases ended up dismissed before a verdict was issued — but not with the acquittal of the defendants.
“Those women are kept in a judicial limbo, leaving them vulnerable and facing being stigmatized, as the case is not closed but still appears in their judicial records,” Álvarez stated.
As experts explained to the Herald, many cases follow the same sequence. First, a woman arrives at hospital needing assistance with fears for the health of their unborn child. The analysts allege that medical staff often fail to believe a miscarriage has happened naturally and instead point toward neglect or a planned or deliberate abortion. Doctors then denounce their patients for “self-induced abortion” to the authorities — a crime with a maximum penalty of four years in prison. Belén claims such events happened to her.
“The right to health is a matter of fact for women in Tucumán. Medical staff (have) denounced women after considering that they have not acted appropriately because they do not agree with what they ‘suspect’ a woman has done,” Álvarez said, adding that doctors often interrogate their patients when they should not.
For her part, Deza says that her client — who has now become the figurehead of a movement — has “exposed a part of the judiciary that is patriarchal and is using its positions for demonstrations of power.”