The Argentine Supreme Court's ruling earlier this month in the case of A.G., a 15-year-old girl who became pregnant after her stepfather raped her, does not decriminalize abortion. But it does humanize the judicial process for rape victims seeking timely medical intervention after suffering unspeakable violence.
I don’t know A.G., but I know her story well. I have had the sad experience of speaking with adolescent girls like her who became pregnant through sexual violence. Girls forced to become mothers at an age when they should be playing with friends and going to school; girls whose bodies have yet to fully develop and for whom a pregnancy could be physically debilitating or even fatal; girls terrified by the prospect of raising the child of their attacker.
Sexual violence leaves terrible physical and emotional scars on any survivor’s life. But when such a terrible act of violence also results in a pregnancy, the emotional weight of what to do next can be paralyzing.
Reasonable people can disagree about the moral significance of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy in any number of cases and situations. Even people of the same religious beliefs can hold very different views about when such a medical intervention is justified. The decision to undergo an abortion is intimate, personal and sometimes confusing for women and adolescent girls to make. This decision may become even more difficult and emotionally wrought when the pregnancy is the result of a rape. In such instances, a woman or girl should be able to make such a decision openly and in consultation with her medical service provider, her faith community, and her family or friends without fearing prosecution.
Contrary to some claims, the Supreme Court’s decision has nothing to do with telling any woman who is raped whether they should get an abortion. It simply makes clear that all survivors of sexual violence who become pregnant as a result, not only women with disabilities, have the right to consider and access medical treatment including abortion services – without the indignity and fear of prosecution. The ruling recognizes Argentina’s human rights obligations, and ensures that the penal code and the judicial system do not impinge on a victim’s rights in the very moment she most needs them protected. Rather, a survivor may file a complaint of the act of violence, and then seek the medical care she needs without administrative or judicial delay.
To understand the significance of this ruling, try to imagine what December 2009 must have been like for A.G. and her family. How scary it must have been for her to have someone she trusted, the father of her brothers and sisters, her mother’s husband, violate her trust, her body, her dignity. Then, for her to realize that she had become pregnant. Try to imagine what her mother, A.F., must have felt – the guilt, the fear, the anger.
Then, try to imagine what the process must have been like for A.F. to try to seek the medical treatment her daughter needed. A.F. could not just focus on ensuring her daughter the best medical care possible – she had to fight legal battles to ensure her daughter’s safety, as she watched her daughter’s mental health deteriorate.
Try to imagine A.G.’s doctors – who understood the medical necessity of terminating the pregnancy, but also recognized the danger of prosecution if they executed their sound medical judgment without judicial authorization.
For over three months A.G. and A.F. had to wait as the case wound through administrative and judicial processes – each week the pregnancy weighing heavier on A.G.’s mental and physical state.
The Supreme Court ruling seeks to ensure that the misery and hardship A.G. and her mother faced need not be repeated. This is an important step forward, made completely within the competence of the Court, to reaffirm the human dignity of survivors and to protect the rights women have over their own bodies. It is now up to other branches of government, assisted by public debate, to make similar progress to ensure the full respect of women's human rights in Argentina.