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Argentina sex workers are fighting for abortion rights
photography Michael Vince Kim

Argentine sex workers are fighting for legal abortion and the right to work

We hear the harrowing stories of women championing reproductive rights in Argentina as a crucial vote takes place

Tomorrow (August 8), the Argentine Senate will vote on an abortion bill that was narrowly passed by the Chamber of Deputies in June. If passed, it would allow women to have a legal abortion up until the 14th week of pregnancy.

Sex workers in Argentina’s capital have expressed solidarity with the pro-choice movement, which they say aligns with their own wish for body autonomy and integrity.

In the lead up to the Senate vote, Buenos Aires has seen protests outside congress every Thursday. Among a sea of green pro-choice supporters, the women that belong to AMMAR – a union of sex workers – march in favour of both the legalisation of abortion and the decriminalisation of sex work. Some among them carry placards and wear stickers that read “Las Putas Feministas,” in English: “Feminist Sluts”.

AMMAR, an acronym for ‘El Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de Argentina’, was founded in 1995 by a group of sex workers who wanted their work to receive legal recognition and protection. Sex work is legal according to federal law, though it is still restricted by provincial Offence Codes. Abortion is currently illegal in Argentina, except in cases where a woman has been raped or the pregnancy endangers her life.

In May 2018, AMMAR signed an open letter directed to the Argentine deputies calling for free, legal, and safe abortion. In the letter, the group also drew parallels between abortion and sex work, as neither is legally protected by the state. “Historically, the Argentine State has criminalised women’s choices over their own bodies,” says AMMAR, “from sex work to the personal decision to terminate a pregnancy.”

On June 11, AMMAR celebrated the Senate’s repeal of Article 68, a provincial Offence Code which enabled police to fine sex workers on the street, or imprison them for up to 30 days, in the Buenos Aires Province.

“This is one step,” says AMMAR, “but there are 17 provinces in Argentina and many still impose restrictions on sex work.”

Members of AMMAR hope the Senate will vote in favour of legal and safe abortions too. Ahead of tomorrow’s vote, two members of AMMAR recall their own experiences of clandestine abortions.

Georgina Orellano, 32, became a sex worker when she was 19. She lives in a modern flat in the traditional, cobble-stoned neighbourhood that is San Telmo in Buenos Aires, where we meet.

It’s winter in Argentina, but Georgina’s apartment is warm. Water is boiling on the stove, with which Georgina prepares ‘mate’, the local communal tea served in a gourd. A stack of academic books on feminism is the first thing you see upon entering her home. The walls of her living room are adorned with postcards from Amsterdam’s red light district, feminist posters, and portraits of Evita Perón and Frida Kahlo.

Georgina was 22 when she had her first abortion. She was in a stable relationship at the time with the father of her one-year-old son. They lived together in an impoverished neighbourhood in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

“The abortion movement is about giving women autonomy over our own bodies, and sex workers ask for that same right”

As a sex worker, Georgina didn’t have recourse to state welfare. Concerned about the financial implications of having a second child, the couple decided to abort. Georgina found a nurse willing to perform a “backstreet” abortion in a clandestine clinic for 400 pesos at the time.

“A wire was introduced via my vagina and used to puncture to amniotic sack,” she says. “The contractions only started the following day, by which point I felt sick and had a high fever. But I was too nervous to go to the hospital. I thought: what if they try to save the pregnancy?”

Instead, she self-managed the pain at home. “Three days later, the placenta came out. I saw a gynaecologist, who diagnosed a severe infection.”

As her physical body healed, Georgina began to feel the emotional impact her clandestine abortion had caused her. It was not regret she felt, but loneliness, given the stigma that surrounds both sex work and abortion in this Catholic country.

“I felt guilty, alone and ashamed,” she recalls. “I couldn’t even talk to close friends, as I know society expects women to become mothers. Worse still, my partner at the time, denied involvement in my decision and made me feel more guilty.”

“Before joining AMMAR in 2001 I felt like a victim,” she says. “Being a part of this collective has made me feel empowered.”

Her last abortion was performed by a gynaecologist recommended by her colleagues in a safe clinic. He did not discriminate against sex workers, and he was in favour of providing safe and legalising abortion.

“Sex work is one of the only topics that generates division within the feminist movement. The abortion movement is about giving women autonomy over our own bodies, and sex workers ask for that same right.”

Laura Meza, 51, meets us in the AMMAR office in the same historic neighbourhood. Laura joined AMMAR about eight years ago, though she has been working some 20 years in the Flores neighbourhood of Buenos Aires.

“I was a nurse before,” she says, “I still clearly remember the date that changed. I was laid off on the December 30, 1997. I had three young children and couldn’t imagine another way of making ends meet.”

Three months into this profession, and Laura was rushed to hospital when a client’s condom got stuck inside her. “They removed the condom, but it turned out I got pregnant because of this mishap – the hospital said they couldn’t do anything about that.”

“You’re the first people with whom I share this story,” she says. “I was 12-13 weeks pregnant at the time – almost 2 months. An ultrasound confirmed I was carrying twins. I did consider carrying the pregnancy to full-term. Having kids, I knew how joyous being a mother could be – but having five children wasn’t an option.”

“I had heard already of oxaprozin – it’s a type of NSAID drug which can increase the risk of premature pregnancy. They were available over-the-counter, but I only found one pharmacy which stocked them, and they were expensive.”

Looking back, Laura says that choosing to abort was one of the best decisions she made in her life.

“When the bill was approved by the Chamber of deputies, I cried,” she says. “I never thought I’d live to see that. I don’t think abortion should be used as a form of birth control, but a woman’s choice should be respected. I will support my daughters or granddaughters if they make that decision too.”