By Anna-Catherine Brigida
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – When Argentine trainee nursery teacher Lourdes, 24, went to the doctor in March seeking to end her pregnancy she was one of the first in the country to be prescribed abortion pill mifepristone after local regulators had approved it fully just weeks earlier.
Argentina is the latest country in Latin America to green light the drug, part of a two-pill abortion regimen, which now faces the threat of a ban in the United States.
Lourdes, who asked Reuters to only use her first name, said that knowing the medication was available made the tough personal decision a little easier after she had become pregnant and been kicked out of her home by an abusive partner.
It reflects a shift towards expanding reproductive rights in Argentina, which legalized abortion up to 14 weeks at the end of 2020, and more widely across traditionally Catholic, conservative Latin America. Abortion access has also expanded in recent years in Mexico, Colombia and Chile, although in countries including Brazil, Peru and El Salvador it remains prohibited or heavily restricted.
“Perhaps a few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to decide about my body, my life and my future, and decide if I wanted this or not,” Lourdes, who was accompanied by her sister and a social worker to the doctor in March, told Reuters.
“I got pregnant and I separated from my partner in a violent way,” she said. “I want to be a mother but it wasn’t the right moment in my life for that to happen.”
In the United States, abortion access has been shrinking since the overturning of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling last year that recognized women’s constitutional right to abortion.
Anti-abortion groups in the U.S. are now seeking to ban mifepristone, arguing that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration disregarded health risks of the drug when they approved it in 2000. The FDA says the drug is safe and has been properly tested.
The next legal hearing is set to take place on Wednesday, when a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will decide whether to allow an injunction suspending the drug’s approval to go ahead.
Mifepristone, when combined with second pill misoprostol, boosts the effectiveness of medical abortions to over 96% from 84% with only misoprostol, according to two peer-reviewed studies. It is used in over half of all U.S. abortions.
Not everyone in Argentina supports its use.
Anti-abortion groups filed a lawsuit against the approval of misoprostol in 2019, arguing that it put the lives of mothers and their unborn children at risk. Ignacio de la Riva of the Prodeci group said it had concerns over possible risks that the drug’s “indiscriminate use outside of hospitals may entail for public health.”
The Derqui X La Vida group said in a statement that the state should be “supporting or assisting vulnerable pregnant women” rather than providing abortion resources.
MATERNAL MORTALITY FALLS SHARPLY
But most doctors and officials say having the medication widely available has made abortions safer and reduced the likelihood of terminations though riskier channels, which were relatively common until the new abortion law took effect in 2021 and which still sometimes take place in rural, conservative regions.
Maternal mortality from abortions has fallen by 40% since the 2021 law was passed, according to health ministry data.
“I’ve seen young women die who arrived with septic abortions and with acute kidney failure who were impossible to save,” said Marcela Paz, medical director at Laboratorio Dominguez that is now producing mifepristone locally.
“When you have this life experience it impacts you and that’s why you look for a solution.”
Valeria Isla, director of sexual and reproductive health at Argentina’s health ministry, said the government was aiming to offer all medical abortions using the mifepristone-misoprostol combination by the end of 2023.
“Having mifepristone available is key for ensuring abortions that are safe and high quality,” she said.
The two-pill regimen means that riskier surgical abortions are less likely to be needed, and it has fewer side effects than taking the single misoprostol treatment, said Sandra Vasquez, a gynecologist and executive director of Argentine health NGO FUSA.
For Benjamin Castro, a 26-year-old non-binary Argentine musician and teacher, mifepristone access came too late.
Castro, who was assigned female at birth and uses male pronouns, sought an abortion in 2020 during the pandemic, before mifepristone was available, receiving only misoprostol pills. The aborted fetus remained in the uterus and he had to repeat the treatment before it was successful.
“It’s incredibly difficult to spend a month – 20 days – with a dead fetus in your uterus and have to live with this and go on with your life,” Castro said.
“I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I went through.”
(Reporting by Anna-Catherine Brigida; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien)