Argentina's Supreme Court has ruled that a woman rescued from a prostitution ring must get the abortion she wants, and chastised public officials who put her in the center of a political firestorm.
The ruling was celebrated Friday by women's advocates in Buenos Aires, where the federal justice ministry has been protecting the 32-year-old in a refuge for freed sex slaves.
Argentina allows legal abortions in rape cases or to protect a woman's health. But politicians, doctors and judges often continue to block them, despite a Supreme Court ruling in March that was supposed to remove barriers to abortion.
In this case, a judge intervened anyway, saying there was no proof of rape even though the woman had been kidnapped and forced into prostitution.
The high court's ruling Thursday night urged public health officials to urgently end the pregnancy, which was entering its 10th week. The woman was expected to have undergone the procedure by early Friday, but her lawyers gave no details about that.
The ruling, signed by six of the seven justices, also blames Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri and the judge who intervened, saying they revealed details that enabled anti-abortion protesters to converge on the public hospital where she was awaiting the procedure, and later on her private home as well.
Her lawyer, Pablo Vicente, told The Associated Press that hospital staff gave her personal information to protesters, enabling them to gather outside her home. Rather than help his client, the hospital's priest joined the protests against her, said Vicente, who sued the group and the hospital director, alleging that her privacy was violated and her life threatened.
"They shouted that she's a murderer, and threatened her that if she continues, that something really bad would happen to her," Vicente said.
Macri also now faces lawsuits for initiating the controversy by announcing publicly that a 32-year-old freed sex slave was scheduled to have an abortion in a speech that mobilized anti-abortion forces to hunt her down. The judge in the case, Miriam Rustan de Estrada, also faces both judicial and criminal investigations for allegedly disobeying the higher court.
Repeated messages seeking comment from the Pro-Family Civil Association and the group's attorney, Pedro Javier Maria Andereggen, were not returned.
The Catholic Attorney Corps, a group of Argentine lawyers supporting church doctrine, accused the Supreme Court of violating the nation's constitution.
"Abortion is never a solution," their statement said. "In the case of a rape, which does not justify an abortion, it's a fundamental ethical principle that one wrong isn't corrected or compensated by another bigger one."
Macri has been traveling in Europe, but his deputy, Maria Eugenia Vidal, denied the mayor had done anything wrong, and noted that he too appealed the judge's decision, claiming she had overstepped her authority. On Friday, his government announced that five public hospitals in the city are prepared to handle abortions for any rape victim without any need to go to court.
Argentina legalized abortion in the 1920s in very limited cases, including when women have been raped or face serious health risks, but the wording is confusing, and anti-abortion forces have argued that it only applies to mentally disabled rape victims. The high court ruled in March that the justice system should remove all barriers to raped women or children getting abortions, but the decision lacks the force of a new federal law.
Health ministry data show 80,000 women are hospitalized with complications from illegal abortions in Argentina each year, suggesting that as many as 500,000 are getting the procedure anyway in needlessly risky situations, woman's health advocate Estela Diaz said Friday.
"We urgently need a law to avoid victimizing the woman in these kinds of cases," Vicente said. "It's absolutely necessary to openly debate the abortion issue, and establish a national law that enables women to decide what to do with their bodies."
The Senate in neighboring Uruguay was expected to hold a final vote Wednesday on a law that would enable any Uruguayan resident to get a first-trimester abortion for any reason. Adult women wouldn't need court approval, but would have to justify their decisions before a medical panel and then wait five days before undergoing the procedure. The measure reflects political compromises reached after years of debate.
In Argentina, meanwhile, a proposed national law to loosen abortion restrictions, introduced for the fourth time three years ago, remains stuck in committee. That leaves the capital and every province to come up with their own solutions matching the high court's ruling in March.
This woman's case came up because Macri had announced plans to veto the city legislature's abortion measure, saying it went beyond the court's rulings by enabling minors to get abortions without parental approval and declining to include a conscience exemption for medical professionals who don't want to participate. The mayor cited her situation in a speech as an example of how the city should provide abortions in certain cases.
President Cristina Fernandez has been outspoken in support of protecting women from the sex trade. But she is personally opposed to abortion and has not made legalizing it a priority.
Vicente predicts that Congress won't act until the president urges it to. Diaz won't go that far.
"Thanks to this president, Argentina has advanced with very important laws — marriage equality, gender identification, death with dignity. The debate over abortion will happen. It's more complicated; it's not easy. The president is against it, but she's also said it's a matter for the Congress to decide," Diaz said.
"I think we're getting close, but you have to look at this debate in terms of religious politics in Latin America. The Catholic forces opposed to abortion are so strong that they barely got it passed in Uruguay, which is the least religious country in the region."
Meanwhile Friday in La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province, Diaz said, another rape victim was turned away when doctors told her the entire hospital had a conscientious objection to forming abortions.
"This is really serious," Diaz said. "What this amounts to is a refusal to comply with government policies."
Later Friday, the provincial public hospitals director, Claudio Ortiz, announced that the woman was able to get her abortion after all Friday morning, and clarified that "the hospitals guarantee the realization of this practice, even though there may be conscientious objectors" among the staff.