Health Secretary Adolfo Rubinstein presented his “indeclinable” resignation from the government yesterday, ending a week in which the debate over abortion in Argentina again seized national headlines.
Rubinstein’s position had looked untenable ever since it emerged Thursday that he had not sought permission from his superiors before issuing, a day earlier, a new protocol that updated the guidelines for non-punishable abortions in Argentina, a hot-topic issue that fiercely divdes the majority Catholic nation.
On Friday morning, President Mauricio Macri revoked the new rules. Addressing the decision in a live video on Instagram, the president described Rubinstein’s decision as “unilateral” and “wrong.”
He did not refer to the abortion guidelines specifically, only the way in which they were introduced.
“We are a team, from the first day I bet on working as a team, to debate, to discuss. The publication of the legal interruption of pregnancy protocol was a unilateral decision and that is wrong, so – without discussing the substance of the matter – we annul by decree what has been done,” said Macri.
Rumours had started to circulate on Thursday that Rubinstein, a member of the UCRRadical wing of the outgoing government coalition, was on his way out.
The health secretary said in his resignation letter, sent to the president yesterday, that he had sought to “improve public health and bring health services closer to people. “
“I am convinced that despite many personal and contextual limitations … I [have] tried to do my best to improve public health,” he wrote.
He criticised the decision to revoke the protocol, saying it was a crucial “action guide for doctors and health teams that gives them certainty and protection in the performance of the procedures they must perform to guarantee the rights that are enshrined in our criminal code.”
“The repeal of the protocol … obliges me to resign indefinitely from my position,” he wrote. “During my management I have had as one of my top priorities both the protection and the extension of the rights of women, girls, adolescents, people with the ability to gestate and the LGBTIQ + community.”
The row began Wednesday, just hours after the publication of new guidelines for non-punishable abortionsin the Official Gazette. News of the new protocol sparked immediate controversy, within and beyond the ruling coalition.
The resolution, which detailed “Protocol for the comprehensive care of people entitled to legal termination of pregnancy” (ILE), was signed by Rubinstein, who enjoyed ministerial rank until Macri streamlined his Cabinet 14 months ago.
These new rules recognised the right of adolescents (in this case those aged under 16) to decide on the interruption of their pregnancies in cases falling within the law in accordance with World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations.
It indicates that girls aged between 13 and 16 years old do not need authorisation from their parents or guardians to seek the procedure, unless it involves a high level of risk. Those under 13 do need permission from their parents or guardians. Should the legally responsible adults refuse to grant permission, healthcare professionals do have the right to step in, but only the grounds of principles related to the health of the pregnant girl, and not for ideological or religious reasons.
Current Argentine legislation authorises an abortion only when the woman’s life is in danger or when the pregnancy is the result of rape.
Rubinstein, a militant activist in favour of legalisation who lobbied hard for the abortion reform bill that was ultimately frustrated in the Senate last year, described the new proposal as “a great step forward to continue advancing towards the consolidation of rights and Saturday, November 23, 2019 the protection of public health with equity.”
But his initiative triggered a crisis within the outgoing Cambiemos coalition entering its last three weeks in office.
“The Health Secretary’s resolution seems to me deplorable and clearly unconstitutional, irresponsibly expanding the justification for non-indictable abortion and limiting the conscientious objectors within the medical profession,” complained outgoing Senator Federico Pinedo (who heads the upper house under the vice-president), a member of Macri’s PRO centre-right party.
The protocol did not meet win the approval of Rubinstein’s superior, Social Development Minister Carolina Stanley, either, who complained that she had not been consulted – one of the justifications given by the government for nixing it.
Rumours soon circulated that Rubinstein’s resignation had been requested. Radicals within the ruling coalition promptly stated their solidarity with their party colleague with a signed resolution.
The Kirchnerite opposition was quick to criticise the contradictions within the government ,with former health minister Ginés González García and Pablo Yedlin (tipped for the portfolio in the incoming government) at the forefront.
The latter rebutted Pinedo’s “unconstitutional” argument, saying that Rubinstein was not trying to legislate anything from the Executive branch since the causes permitting a legal abortion had been in the Criminal Code for over 100 years. Yedlin also sharply criticised Stanley’s qualifications to decide over public health.
Despite clearing the way for last year’s abortion bill to be presented in Congress, Macri adopted a pro-life stance during the election campaign. In contrast, president-elect Alberto Fernández recently announced that he would push the legalisation of abortion “as soon as” he takes office next month, regarding the question as a public health issue.
Poignant cases of child pregnancies constantly bring the issue to the fore –in the midst of the latest political controversy, in Jujuy, José Dávalos, 60, was sentenced on Wednesday to 13 years in prison for raping a girl of 12, a crime resulting in a birth by caesarean section with the baby dying four days later.
It is estimated that there are
around half a million abortions
in Argentina every year with
100 or more women dying as a
result of illegal procedures.