One Saturday morning, Cristina Espinosa got up early as usual to prepare empanadas to sell. She noticed her partner had been drinking. Later, while working in the kitchen, she heard her daughter Camila scream from the bathroom. Her partner, who was looking angry, was with Camila. When Cristina asked what he was doing to her, he wouldn’t let Camila answer. He said that he was talking to her about the way she answered to a complaint the day before.
Camila replied that it was a lie. Cristina’s partner then grabbed Camila by the neck and also hit Cristina. “I went out asking for help and managed to make him let go of my daughter. I thought he would kill us both,” Cristina wrote in her journal.
This incident in 2013 marked the beginning of the struggle of Cristina for the right of her underage daughter—a rape survivor—to have a legal abortion.
Camila was raped by her stepfather from the age of 12. The crime was committed at home while Cristina was away; sometimes, it was even done in front of Camila’s younger sister. “Camila tells me that he would hold on to her hair and pull it when she tried to resist. He threatened to kill her little brothers and me,” her mother painfully recalled.
When Cristina found out about the rape, her daughter was already four weeks pregnant. Camila wanted to abort the pregnancy.
Abortion is viewed by the Catholic Church as a violation of the right to life. In 1998, after a visit to the Vatican, former President Carlos Menem passed a decree declaring 25 March as the Day of the Unborn Child. Catholic authorities regularly express that women do not have the right to abortion—in statements, public letters, and homilies. It is a view that pervades deeply in Argentine society.
Abortion is also severely restricted in Argentina. Under the country’s penal code, access to abortion only becomes legal when it is to “save the life of the mother” or “where the pregnancy results from a rape or indecent assault committed on a female idiot or insane.”
The law was previously interpreted to mean that rape victims have to suffer a mental disability for the abortion to be legal. This contributed to a high rate of illegal abortions. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Argentina finally clarified that abortion is allowed in all cases of rape.
However, Camila’s request for a non-punishable abortion was denied by the judge of family affairs. Cristina rued that the judgment was based on “prejudices and religious beliefs” of pro-life advocates, who usually intervene in abortion cases.
The denial judgment was issued despite doctors’ warnings of health risks, should the pregnancy continue. At the hospital, Camila refused to eat and threatened to commit suicide. “She told me she was going to throw herself out of the window, because she didn’t want to live,” her mother wrote.
Catholic pro-life advocates harassed Camila when she was at the hospital. They visited Camila in her hospital room and made threatening telephone calls, trying to coerce her to have the baby.
Camila and her mother stayed at the hospital for over a month, with little hope of access to safe and legal abortion. Finally, Cristina reached out to lawyers working with the Foro de Mujeres por la Igualdad de Oportunidades (Women’s Forum for Equal Opportunities) and Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (Catholics for the Right to Decide) network.
They went to Buenos Aires and there, she met several women’s organisations. “Many women helped us, protected us and gave us so much, that I do not have words to thank them,” she said. Women, whom Cristina had never met, wrote her letters of support and sympathy.
A gynecologist took care of Camila while lawyers battled out her case. Finally, the Salta Court of Justice ruled that Camila had the right to abortion due to rape. The case was considered jurisprudence in the Province of Salta.
Now, Camila is 17 years of age. She is about to finish high school. “This year she is going on her graduation trip. I think she is happy,” her mother proudly said.
Cristina has publicly told her daughter’s story several times already. Although their dilemma is now over, she vowed to continue speaking up for victims of violence who are “re-victimised,” like her daughter, by restrictive laws and religious norms.
Cristina reflected on how religion should not be used to deprive women of their rights. She wrote: “They say that it is their God that they have to defend with their sentence. I tell them that he is also my God and it is not true that he wants poor women to suffer so much. It is very hard to talk about it, to exercise it, and first of all to know it. But…our rights can free us.”