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The Catholic Church Conspired To Stop This 11-Year-Old From Getting An Abortion

SAN MIGUEL DE TUCUMÁN, Argentina — Lucía sat up in her hospital bed as the priest made the sign of the cross on her forehead, the 11-year-old’s bulging belly visible underneath her pajama shirt.

“Think long and hard about what you’re considering doing,” Lucía’s mother remembered the priest telling them. “Save both lives,” he said.

Lucía wasn’t sure what the priest was talking about. She only knew her grandmother’s partner had done something bad to her and now she had a terrible stomachache.

The priest was just one of a constant stream of people, including government officials, who came to the hospital in February to coerce Lucía into giving birth. But Lucía, who still had some of her baby teeth, only had one thing on her mind as she begged the adults around her in between crying fits: Take out the thing the old man put in me.

Her visitors refused.

One of them, Gustavo Vigliocco, head of the health care system in the province of Tucumán in northern Argentina, wanted to make a deal with Lucía’s family — he offered to keep the baby in exchange for a house and a scholarship for Lucía, her mother said he told them. Meanwhile nurses gave Lucía a corticoid injection, which would make the fetus’s lungs mature faster, telling her it was a vitamin shot, according to her lawyers. During an ultrasound, doctors excitedly told her she would be the mother of a baby girl.

Take out the thing the old man put in me.

They all seemed to be pushing the limits on Lucía’s health while doctors bought time for the fetus to grow and become viable.

Abortion is illegal in Argentina, except in cases of rape or when the pregnant woman’s life is in danger — both of which applied to Lucía, according to the doctors who were eventually called in to operate on her.

“There is not one of Lucía’s rights that was not violated,” said Adriana Guerrero, part of a team of lawyers now working on behalf of Lucía, a pseudonym chosen by her attorneys to safeguard the girl’s identity. “Not one.” Vigliocco did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Lucía’s mother did not doubt what her daughter needed. She wanted Lucía to have an abortion, and she wanted it immediately. Instead, the hospital repeatedly stalled for time. She said that, while she waited by Lucía’s bedside, the in-house chaplain visited them five times, repeating a similar speech every time: Protect the “little creature” — by which he meant the fetus, not the little girl lying on the bed in front of him. Meanwhile, doctors warned her mother that an abortion might kill Lucía. “You’ll carry two burdens of conscience with you,” she said Vigliocco had warned her. Over and over again, he asked Lucía to wait until she was seven months along before making a decision.

And then there was the question of his offer. “He was buying the little baby from me,” Lucía’s mother said during an interview last month at her lawyer’s office in San Miguel de Tucumán, the provincial capital with a population around 600,000. She requested that her name be withheld because she’s doing her best to preserve what she can of Lucía’s privacy in the hopes of giving her some semblance of a normal life, an almighty challenge given all she’s been through by the age of 11.

Nearly a month after doctors first detected Lucía’s pregnancy, authorities finally relented to the family’s request. By then, Lucía was 23 weeks along, and the doctor who was called in to treat her decided that the safest way to end her pregnancy was through what he described as a “micro” cesarean section.

“There is not one of Lucía’s rights that was not violated.”

What happened to Lucía, and how she ended up having to endure the C-section, has since become the subject of news headlines, breathless TV reports, and outrage on social media across the world. But this only came about because of the psychological pressure Lucía and her mother were subjected to for weeks by provincial authorities, hospital officials, and leaders of the Catholic Church as they conspired to prevent her from getting the abortion they were obliged by law to perform. These powerful local figures wanted Lucía to give birth.

To add to the trauma done to Lucía, her real name was revealed by the local archbishop, forcing Lucía’s private misery into the center of a public struggle, and her story into a cautionary tale used by both sides of a national debate about abortion.

Yet, Lucía, for now, doesn’t know exactly what happened to her. She never fully understood what had been growing inside her, only that there was “something” in her belly that she wanted out. But her scar, and the leaks to the press — her real name and her medical records are all over the internet — mean that one day she will know the full extent of the horror she was forced to live through.

Eva Perón hospital in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

Eva Perón hospital in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina.

Lucía’s short life has been one of abuse and neglect.

She was raised in a tiny shantytown on the border between Tucumán and Santiago del Estero, two poor and conservative provinces in northern Argentina.

Lucía grew up in the family home, living with her mother and sisters until 2014, when she was ordered by authorities to move in with her grandmother. Her mother’s partner had reportedly sexually abused her sisters, and Lucía was taken away from her care.

But life there was no better: According to her family, it was there that her grandmother’s 65-year-old boyfriend raped Lucía. He has since been arrested.

At the end of January this year, Lucía began to feel unwell, so her mother took her to a nearby clinic. Doctors there told them Lucía was pregnant and referred her to the Eva Perón public hospital in the province’s capital. A scan soon confirmed she was around 20 weeks along. Lucía’s mother immediately asked for an abortion but doctors denied her. Hospital staff told Lucía’s mother to take her home — back to her grandmother’s house, the place where she was raped.

The next two weeks were agony for Lucía, and she twice deliberately hurt herself, her mother said. When she took Lucía back to the hospital on February 11 and told doctors what Lucía had done, they decided to keep her there.

Lucía’s mother kept asking for an abortion but doctors, she said, continued to stand in her way. To approve the abortion, they demanded unnecessary paperwork, including her former husband’s signature, which isn’t required by law. Even when she got that, no one at the hospital would take the signed paper from her. They were likely responding to an order from local prosecutor Adriana Giannoni to not proceed with Lucía’s abortion, Tucumán’s health minister, Rossana Chahla, later revealed during an interview with a local television station.

Because of the restrictions put in place under Argentine law, abortions are rare in public hospitals like the one in San Miguel de Tucumán, and Lucía’s case quickly drew attention. It wasn’t just her age and how late into the pregnancy she was when doctors discovered it — the church has such an outsize influence in the region that priests with ties to senior state officials quickly learned what was going on in the hospital and began a coordinated campaign against her getting an abortion.

Religious images can be found all over San Miguel de Tucumán.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

Religious images can be found all over San Miguel de Tucumán.

Vigliocco visited Lucía every day, her mother said. He was there so often that she initially “thought he was our doctor.” Vigliocco insisted on having Lucía “hang in there,” and would occasionally stroke her belly, the family’s lawyer said. He warned them that Lucía could lose her womb if they went through with the abortion.

Then came another offer from Vigliocco, Lucía’s mother said: If her daughter gave birth, he would take the baby in exchange for returning Lucía to her care.

She refused, so Vigliocco changed tactics. Lucía’s mother said he told her that if she wanted to have the abortion approved by the state, she would now need to get two blood donors, a request her lawyers say was yet another effort to stall the procedure. It was impossible for her to find any donors at such short notice since she couldn’t leave the hospital room, too scared of leaving Lucía on her own.

All of the pressure piled on Lucía was illegal — she had the right to an abortion as soon as her mother asked for one. “They didn’t have the power to do what they did,” said Juan Carlos Escobar, coordinator for the National Program for Adolescent Integral Health, part of Argentina’s Ministry of Health and Social Development. “It is concerning to us that the provinces are not fulfilling their obligations.” The head of the Eva Perón hospital, Elizabeth Ávila, declined to respond to requests for an interview. Questions to Tucumán’s health ministry went unanswered.

“There was a total lack of interest in the torture they were subjecting her to.”

The family grew increasingly frustrated as they realized that hospital staffers, who should have had Lucía’s best interests in mind, were doing anything they could to prolong her agony. Feeling powerless in the face of this, Lucía’s aunt, who visited her at the hospital almost every day, decided to contact Argentina’s most influential feminist group. She sent a Facebook message to the local branch of Ni Una Menos, or Not One Less, a movement that has brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to raise awareness about violence against women. The group then contacted Cladem and Andhes, two human rights groups, whose lawyers agreed to meet Lucía’s mother at the hospital.

But the hospital put hurdles in their way too. When the lawyers went to meet with Lucía’s family, hospital guards wouldn’t let them up to her room, they said. Since her mother couldn’t go downstairs, they initially had little choice but to communicate by phone. The lawyers think this was also by design.

One person who works at the hospital, and who requested their name be withheld — worried that speaking out would cost them their job — said that the handful of pro–abortion rights staffers were also not allowed to get close to Lucía.

While officials and hospital staff kept pushing for time, women’s rights groups started a petition on Change.org, and a campaign on social media, in hopes of forcing the government to honor Lucía’s request for an abortion.

This appears only to have hardened the authorities’ resolve. At one point, three men in uniforms entered Lucía’s room and took down her and her mother’s full names and addresses “in an intimidating matter,” according to one of the family’s lawyers, Flor Vallino.

Flor Vallino
Erica Canepa for Angle News

Flor Vallino

Vallino believes there has been a coordinated campaign by the public health care system in Tucumán to ensure that Lucía’s pregnancy was stretched out as long as possible. “This was a calculated exercise: How long can this girl be pushed before the fetus is viable?” Vallino asked. They didn’t seem to care about the well-being of the girl at the heart of it all, Vallino said. “There was a total lack of interest in the torture they were subjecting her to.”

When hospital staff realized Lucía’s family wouldn’t give in to pressure from state authorities, they put yet another hurdle in their way. They told her mother that if she insisted on having an abortion, she was free to take Lucía to a private clinic. They even went so far as to order a taxi for her, Vallino said. But Vallino told Lucía’s mother not to go anywhere — the family couldn’t have afforded private care even if they’d wanted to.

It was on February 26 — nearly a month since she first daw a doctor — that Lucía was ordered not to eat or drink, her mother said. As the day dragged on and the uncertainty grew about whether she was finally going to get the procedure done, Lucía became increasingly hungry and anxious. Her mother sat by her bed, wetting cotton balls and letting Lucía suck on them while they waited.

“I was so scared my daughter was going to die,” she said.

An anti-abortion billboard on a local bus in San Miguel de Tucumán.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

An anti-abortion billboard on a local bus in San Miguel de Tucumán.

Argentina has a long and particular history of violating reproductive rights. The country was governed by a brutal dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, during which time state authorities took babies from political prisoners, often just minutes after they were born, and gave them to supporters of the regime. Margaret Atwood has said this period was partly the inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale.

Sometimes it feels like little has changed.

“Argentina is a country where violence against women is in society’s DNA,” said Victoria Donda, a leftist lawmaker who was born in a detention center during the dictatorship. She was handed over to a military family shortly after her birth in 1977 and her parents were never seen again.

Now the fight over women’s rights in Argentina has come down to abortion, as it has in so many countries around the world.

“Argentina is a country where violence against women is in society’s DNA.”

In Argentina, the story becomes more complicated because of the language used to describe abortions, which are often called “legal interruptions of pregnancy” — or ILE — and the fact that the law does not place an explicit limit on when or how they can be carried out. Because the legislation is vague, and because public health employees sometimes use that to deliberately delay the procedure to the time that a fetus may be viable, a decision is sometimes made to proceed with a delivery that may result in a live-born fetus. This opens a host of ethical and legal dilemmas that can turn an already difficult situation into a nightmare for everyone involved.

Last year, Congress for the first time debated a bill to legalize abortion after President Mauricio Macri, who is conservative and against abortion, told lawmakers that it was high time for a “mature and responsible” debate on it. “We’ve been postponing it for 35 years,” he said, amid growing pressure from women’s rights groups.

The bill passed its first legislative hurdle last June, when it was approved by the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. A backlash quickly ensued. The country’s church-backed conservative groups and evangelicals organized a united offensive — under the banner of grupos celeste, or “light blue groups” — which saw them launch anti-abortion social media campaigns and marches across the country.

The debates over the bill were fierce, and occasionally bizarre. “What happens when our pet dog becomes pregnant?” asked Estela Regidor, a lawmaker, during one session. “We immediately look for someone to give away the puppies to … if we were a little bit more like animals we wouldn’t kill our own.”

Were the bill to pass both houses, Macri promised to sign it into law.

Women’s rights activists were devastated when the Senate narrowly rejected it on August 9, 2018. Outside the chamber, women holding green handkerchiefs, the color of the pro–abortion rights campaign, broke into tears. Some in the group also held orange bandanas, representing a call for the separation between church and state. At the same time, hundreds of women waving light blue handkerchiefs celebrated that the bill had been rejected.

A mural that reads "If she is a child, she is not a mother" in San Miguel de Tucumán.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

A mural that reads “If she is a child, she is not a mother” in San Miguel de Tucumán.

Six months later, in February, women’s rights groups launched their own campaign — known as Niñas, no madres, or “Girls, not mothers” to raise awareness about the high price of unwanted pregnancies. They are worried by what they see as a return to the past, and the way the debate has emboldened conservatives to obstruct even those abortions that are currently legal.

Some celestes have even begun calling for a landmark 2012 decision by the Argentine Supreme Court — known as the F.A.L. ruling, which guarantees abortions for all women who have been raped or whose lives are in danger — to be overturned.

Amid all this, abortion continues to be commonplace. Last year, the national health minister, Adolfo Rubinstein, said there were “hundreds of thousands” of clandestine abortions and between 45,000 and 50,000 hospitalizations for complications every year. According to Socorristas en Red, a network of feminist groups that supports women who are forced to end their pregnancies at home, members of the group “accompanied” 4,783 women during their abortions in 2017, up from 1,116 in 2014. Last year, the number rose to 7,280.

The network holds workshops around the county to discuss how to stay safe during the process — both physically and with regard to the law. During a recent meeting in Tucumán, six women listened intently to the activists as they shared advice, particularly about how to use misoprostol pills, a medication recommended as one of the safest methods of abortion by the World Health Organization. The most important lesson: If things go wrong when they try to have an abortion at home, and a trip to the hospital is inevitable, make sure to clean out the pills from inside the vaginal canal.

A young woman reading abortion instructions.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

A young woman reading abortion instructions.

If any of the women end up being treated by conservative, anti-abortion doctors who discover an attempt and report it to the police, they were warned they could face up to four years behind bars. The activists shared with them the names of “friendly” providers in some private and public hospitals who are willing to discreetly help them.

Young women across Argentina know what it’s like to fall into the wrong hands. In 2014, a 25-year-old woman known as Belén went to a public hospital in Tucumán to seek treatment for abdominal pain and heavy bleeding. Doctors said she had aborted a 22-week-old fetus, although Belén said she wasn’t even aware she was pregnant. In a decision that shocked many Argentines, she was prosecuted for murder and sentenced to eight years. Following a nationwide campaign in 2017 she was released after two years behind bars, having been acquitted of all charges.

Cecilia Ousset and José Gijena
Erica Canepa for Angle News

Cecilia Ousset and José Gijena

On the afternoon of February 26, Vigliocco called the cellphone of Dr. José Gijena, who ran a private clinic with his wife, Dr. Cecilia Ousset, in San Miguel de Tucumán, and asked him to assemble a medical team to treat Lucía.

Word got around, and Lucía’s lawyers got in touch with Gijena while he tried to recruit an anesthesiologist. Around 7 p.m., the phone at Gijena’s clinic rang. His assistant answered. The caller asked if Gijena was going to perform Lucía’s abortion. “Be careful, because if you go ahead with it, you’ll suffer the same outcome as that baby,” the caller said, in a message intended for Gijena.

Two hours after the phone threat, Vigliocco called Gijena again. “The political decision to do this has been taken,” Gijena remembered him saying, referring to the instruction to end Lucía’s pregnancy.

As Gijena and Ousset drove to the hospital with some of Lucía’s lawyers, they knew they were about to enter the eye of the storm around abortion in Argentina. Pro–abortion rights and anti-abortion campaigners had already begun battling it out over Lucía’s case on social media. The doctors said they were afraid of getting pelted with rocks, so one of the attorneys stuffed a sweater under her coat to feign a pregnancy in case they were stopped by anti-abortion protesters.

Once inside the hospital, security guards escorted the doctors to Lucía’s room. “It’s as if we were transporting a shipment of cocaine,” said Gijena of the tight security surrounding them.

When Gijena and Ousset walked into Lucía’s room on the second floor of the hospital, they found her quietly playing with a toy by the bed. Above it, one of Lucía’s relatives had placed a small cross made of dried leaves and medical tape. They also noticed a brand-new tablet, the only shiny object in the sparse hospital room. It was a gift from Vigliocco, Gijena later said.

Not knowing the exact details of Lucía’s condition, Gijena had brought with him several misoprostol pills. But it became immediately clear that “the size of Lucía’s body and the development of her genitals was insufficient to carry out an interruption via her vagina,” he said. Lucía also had hypertension, which would have made any such procedure incredibly risky, said Gijena, and when coupled with her psychological condition, the only viable option left was what he described as “a micro C-section.”

Gijena, 48, couldn’t do the operation on his own, but yet again many hospital staffers refused to help. Ousset, 43, considered herself a conscientious objector, and had never assisted in an abortion. But she wasn’t prepared to obstruct justice, she said — after all, the call to perform the procedure had come from the head of the provincial health care system. So she put on her medical gown, and joined her husband in the operating theater.

Even putting Lucía under was an ordeal, her mother said. She thrashed about in pain as the doctors administered an epidural injection into her lower back. Gripping her mother’s hand, she repeated, “Mama, please don’t leave me!” over and over. Eventually, Lucía asked her to play a prayer from her cellphone. The doctors gave her a tranquilizer and at last she closed her eyes.

As if this weren’t enough, the procedure soon became a circus, with hospital staff crowding outside the operating room’s windows, which the doctors had to cover with bedsheets. A handful of nurses stood around inside the room, watching Ousset’s and Gijena’s every move, the two doctors said.

Outside the hospital, a group of protesters carrying light blue handkerchiefs held a vigil as a light drizzle blanketed the city.

The clock had just struck midnight on February 27 when Gijena started cutting through Lucía’s belly.

Within 40 minutes, the procedure was done. Lucía had survived, and so had the baby.

When she woke up after the operation, Lucía looked down at the gauze covering the wound near her pelvic bone and, confused, called her aunt over. Worn down by weeks of anguish, her aunt couldn’t bring herself to tell the 11-year-old she had delivered a baby. Instead, the aunt told Lucía she had just had her appendix removed.

But pressure from the authorities didn’t stop after the operation. As soon as Gijena and Ousset walked out of the operating room, they were greeted by agents from the office of Giannoni, the local prosecutor, who asked them to provide their full names and IDs, said Gijena, who believes some of the agents were police officers. Giannoni did not respond to a request for an interview.

For the next two weeks Lucía was forced to remain in the hospital. The authorities couldn’t find a home for her — she wasn’t allowed to go back to her mother’s or her grandmother’s houses given the history of sexual abuse there.

She did not meet the baby.

Lucía's room at Eva Perón hospital.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

Lucía’s room at Eva Perón hospital.

By this time, Lucía’s story was known all across Argentina, and then the world.

That was in part because the archbishop of Tucumán, Carlos Sánchez, decided to send a WhatsApp audio message to a group of supporters, imploring them to “guard, and serve the life of [Lucía] and her baby.” In the 70-second audio, Sánchez revealed Lucía’s real name for the first time. “Every life is worthy,” Sánchez said.

It wasn’t the first time that Sánchez had mixed politics and religion in his relentless fight against abortion. Nine months earlier, in the midst of the heated battle over the abortion bill, Sánchez used a sermon at the cathedral in Tucumán to urge local lawmakers to vote against the bill, calling each of them out by name.

One of those legislators, María Teresita Villavicencio, was outraged. “It seemed odd to me that he was doing politics from the pulpit,” she said during an interview at a local restaurant last month.

María Teresita Villavicencio; Villavicencio's daughter looks at her mother's pro–abortion rights handkerchief.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

María Teresita Villavicencio; Villavicencio’s daughter looks at her mother’s pro–abortion rights handkerchief.

But few members of the congregation even raised an eyebrow. It’s almost impossible to walk around San Miguel de Tucumán without seeing a depiction of Jesus. Saints and virgins pop up all around the city’s streets and parks, even finding prominent places inside public hospitals. The image of a fetus appears on city buses, accompanied by the text: “I am 8 weeks old. I want to be born. My life is in your hands.”

On sunny evenings, anti-abortion groups regularly gather outside the cathedral, displaying life-size rubber fetuses, rosaries, and porcelain virgins on a makeshift table. Last month, a woman led a prayer, saying 10 Hail Marys for the protection of “children in their mother’s wombs” as people fed birds nearby.

Just days before Argentina’s Senate was due to debate the abortion bill, Tucumán’s local legislature declared itself a “pro-life” province.

While the archbishop is happy to pronounce from the pulpit, getting answers from him about his decision to reveal Lucía’s real name and discussing details of her case proved impossible. His office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, and his right-hand man, Father José Abuín, said the archbishop was too busy dealing with a sexual abuse case against a bishop in a neighboring province. Another prominent priest, Marcelo Barrionuevo, said Lucía’s case was “too sensitive” for him to comment on.

Pope Francis is perhaps the world’s most influential Argentine, and what he says holds a lot of sway in this corner of the country. Conservative groups “listen to [Pope Francis] when he rails against abortion but they do not listen when he speaks about poverty,” said Donda, one of the main supporters of the abortion bill last year. “They have selective hearing.” The Vatican did not respond to a request for comment about Sánchez’s actions, or about the church’s views on abortion when a child has been raped.

Another religious symbol, the statue of a bishop, in San Miguel de Tucumán.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

Another religious symbol, the statue of a bishop, in San Miguel de Tucumán.

The baby, born at 23 weeks, was fragile from the start, and its health deteriorated with every passing day. Ten days later, it died.

Lucía’s name does not appear on the baby’s birth or death certificates. “The person who conceived her had a pregnancy with no intention of becoming a mother,” according to a ruling last month by a family court judge named Valeria Brand.

This has not stopped anti-abortion campaigners from publicly naming the baby Faustina — which comes from the Latin faustus, meaning “fortunate” — and adopting her as a cause célèbre. And it hasn’t stopped Lucía’s personal information from being dissected in public. A local journalist named Mariano Obarrio posted her medical records, including a written summary of one of her ultrasounds, online last month. Despite everything she has endured, Lucía’s experiences are still the stuff of virulent online arguments.

Many anti-abortionists claim Lucía’s medical records show her life was not in danger at the time the C-section was performed, although Gijena and Ousset say that Lucia had hypertension, a condition that could have caused more complications had she not been given a C-section. A group of lawyers has blamed the doctors for the death of the baby, and even filed a request for a homicide investigation against them.

María Teresa Mockevich
Erica Canepa for Angle News

María Teresa Mockevich

Sitting in a dimly lit office with aging floral wallpaper, one of those lawyers, María Teresa Mockevich, also railed against the press, complaining that the coverage had focused on Lucía, and not the baby.

“People only talk of the 11-year-old girl’s torture, but what about the torture endured by her baby,” asked Mockevich, who wore a matching set of pearl earrings and necklace. She was unwilling to say Lucía’s name. “She could’ve been an extraordinary person,” Mockevich said, speaking of the baby. “She could’ve been a musician, a scientist. She could have cured cancer.”

The criminal complaint against Gijena and Ousset landed on Giannoni’s desk last month. Given the prosecutor’s central role in prolonging Lucía’s pregnancy, the doctors’ lawyer, Emilio Guagnini, soon requested she recuse herself because “she is not objective.” In a sign that’s indicative of how everyone knows one another in the provincial capital, the judge in charge of overseeing Giannoni’s recusal then asked to remove himself from the case because he is the brother of Giannoni’s assistant.

The case has now become a legal back-and-forth, with both sides denouncing each other. Last month, Villavicencio, the lawmaker, filed a formal complaint against Giannoni for abuse of power and coercion.

“She has put her principles, her beliefs, above the law,” said Villavicencio, referring to Giannoni.

There are now multiple cases being prepared on behalf of Lucía and her family. Soledad Deza, an attorney at Catholics for the Right to Decide, a nonprofit that focuses on reproductive rights, has called on the state to investigate Chahla, the provincial health minister; Vigliocco, the head of the health care system; Ávila, the director of the Eva Perón hospital; and Tatiana Obeid, Lucía’s doctor at the hospital, for participating in “a chain of obstruction and barriers to delay” the abortion. The family wants them to be convicted of their crimes, added Deza.

“She has put her principles, her beliefs, above the law.” 

Amid all of this controversy, the two doctors at the heart of it, Gijena and Ousset, say they were prepared for public criticism, but the global outcry over this case has been overwhelming.

Gijena and Ousset are no strangers to controversy. After openly supporting the abortion bill last year, the two say they started getting called el matrimonio abortero, or “the abortion marriage,” on social media.

It’s not as if Ousset rejects the Catholic Church’s teachings. She goes to mass every Sunday and often wears a pendant of the patron saint of Brazil around her neck. Last year she wrote a Facebook post that went viral in which she said: “I’ve never been and may never be in favor of abortion.” But she said she’d come to develop an understanding of, and sympathy for, the young women who seek them. “I’m Catholic, a doctor, an obstetrician, the mother of four children,” Ousset wrote. “I deeply regret not having understood these women, not having loved them, not having supported them lovingly during such a horrible moment,” she wrote.

While out and about in the city, the couple is often the target of threats and verbal attacks. Over dinner at their home last month, Gijena and Ousset’s children recounted episodes of bullying they had been subjected to.

One of their daughters, just 10 years old, recalled how she was eating lunch at school one day when a girl approached her and asked her if she believed abortion was right. When she said she did, the girl pushed her up against the wall and banged her head on it.

Another daughter, 13, discovered someone had carved “Cecilia Ousset, liar” on the bench in front of her usual seat.

After their son, aged 11, asked his teachers to take down the “Save both lives” posters they had put up around school last summer as Congress prepared to discuss the bill, the school called Ousset to tell her he would not be invited back the following year. The couple ended up moving all of their children to another school.

Ousset listened carefully to her children as they spoke, her face betraying a tinge of anger. Despite the growing attention on her and the threat of jail time, Ousset smiled easily and cracked jokes. She pulled her children in for hugs and caressed Gijena’s face from time to time.

“I’m repulsed by a country where, after having an abortion, rich women confess at Church and poor ones die.”

It’s not a question of saving “both lives,” as anti-abortionists argue, Ousset said, but about women being forced to live “a double life.” She spoke about the hypocrisy among churchgoing anti-abortion advocates. In reality, women of all walks of life get abortions, she said, but whether one lives or dies depends on how rich she is.

“I’m repulsed by a country where, after having an abortion, rich women confess at Church and poor ones die, where the rich keep on studying and the poor ones end up with a colostomy bag, where the rich cover the shame of their pregnancy inside a clinic and the poor ones are put on display in a police report,” Ousset had written in her viral post.

Her husband agreed: “In Tucumán, there are girls who go to Disney and girls who become mothers.”

Ousset remembered the first moment she saw Lucía in the hospital room. She immediately thought of her own daughters. After the operation, Ousset broke down in tears. But she said she has no regrets: Ousset felt it was her Christian duty to help Lucía.

As Ousset served herself another portion of takeout Lebanese food, her 10-year-old daughter asked her if they would be sent to prison. “No, don’t worry,” she replied. “You know who goes to jail? Poor people, young people.”

D.A. in San Pedro, Jujuy, Argentina.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

D.A. in San Pedro, Jujuy, Argentina.

One hundred and seventy-three miles north of Lucía’s hometown, in the neighboring province of Jujuy, 12-year-old D.A. bears a similar scar across her belly.

But unlike Lucía, D.A. — whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy — knows exactly what happened to her: Her neighbors, and the internet, won’t have it any other way.

D.A. says she was raped by her 60-year-old neighbor last summer. Afterward, she climbed into the small bed she shares with her mother and younger brother, held back her tears and didn’t say a word. The first sign of trouble during the following months was D.A.’s tumbling grades — unusual for the previously straight-A student.

Worried about a persistent stomachache, D.A.’s mother, Norma, took her daughter to a local clinic in January. There, doctors told them that D.A. was 22 weeks pregnant.

Immediately, D.A. and her mother asked for an abortion but, just as in the case with Lucía, doctors began stalling. D.A. was kept in the hospital, where, one day, three women paid her a visit, having told hospital staff they were relatives of Norma. “Have it and give it up for adoption,” Norma remembered the women, whom she had never met before, begging her daughter.

It was then that Norma, 34, lost it. She started pacing frantically, and punched her fist through the glass cover of the fire alarm. Norma fell to the floor, laying in a puddle of her own blood. Scars still zigzag across her knuckles and wrist.

“If I hadn’t done this to myself, they would have kept delaying it,” Norma said.

D.A.'s mother's scars from punching through the glass cover of the fire alarm at the hospital.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

D.A.’s mother’s scars from punching through the glass cover of the fire alarm at the hospital.

About a week after she first entered the public health system, it was decided that D.A. needed a C-section. Just as with Lucía, outside doctors were called in because the hospital staffers had declared themselves conscientious objectors. After the baby was born alive, one of the nurses went to ask Norma what she wanted to name her — even though D.A. had told doctors that she didn’t want to hear anything about the baby.

The baby, referred to in the media as Esperanza, meaning “hope,” lived for four days.

The baby, referred to in the media as Esperanza, meaning “hope,” lived for four days.

When asked about the scar on her stomach, D.A. said she never thinks about it. Well, except for when she goes to the bathroom. But her mother said that she often catches her daughter lying in bed, looking down at it. “It’s starting to fade, right?” D.A. frequently asks her.

Sitting at the only table in their one-room cinder block house in the outskirts of the provincial capital, Norma started scrolling through Facebook Messenger. “Don’t prostitute your kids,” one message said. “Murderer,” read another. The online bullying has been relentless, Norma said, and it has also spilled over into real life.

Earlier this year, D.A. went to a local fair, one of her first outings since she got out of hospital. Not long after, someone took a photograph of her and posted it on Facebook. “The abortera is here,” it said, referring to D.A. and using a derogatory word to describe women who have had an abortion.

The harassment forced D.A. to go home. But even that’s a place that feels just as hostile. The alleged rapist’s front door is visible from the single window in the house. He is in jail, awaiting trial, but his son, with whom he shares an uncanny resemblance, according to Norma, still lives there. “We just want to leave,” Norma said.

D.A.'s home.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

D.A.’s home.

As she spoke, My Little Pony played on the TV. D.A. watched from the bed, quietly stroking her little brother’s hair. Shy at first, she slowly opened up, sharing that she likes to look for toucans on the tree that casts a shadow over her small courtyard, where several cats and chickens roam free.

D.A. looks like any 12-year-old: Her nails are painted pink — she did it herself, adding a dash of purple varnish — and she keeps her shiny jet-black hair in a messy bun. She wore a T-shirt that said “I’m your angel.”

“People around the neighborhood stare at her,” Norma said. Before D.A. returned to school following her abortion, Norma went to speak with her teachers, afraid that her classmates would bully her. So far, they’ve been kind to her, she said.

Despite the ordeal she went through, D.A. is trying to look toward the future. She goes to therapy regularly now. “Don’t look back,” D.A. said when asked what she would tell other girls going through a similar experience, “and don’t be scared.”

Whether Lucía ever gets the chance to move on may be out of her hands. At the moment, she’s unaware of the circus that surrounded her ordeal. But someday soon she will google her name, find the Archbishop’s audio, read the articles about her, and come to know what was done to her in the name of God. ●

A statue of Jesus in San Miguel de Tucumán.
Erica Canepa for Angle News

A statue of Jesus in San Miguel de Tucumán.



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