Maria was just 12 years old when she arrived at the Marie Stopes clinic in Mexico City. Raped by her grandfather, she was already 19 weeks pregnant.
Frightened and overwhelmed, she had been hospitalised for five days with no resolution and time was ticking to safely end the pregnancy. The problem wasn’t the law – in Mexico access to abortion is legal in cases of rape. The stumbling block was that there was no one comfortable with performing the procedure. Later abortions require a certain level of skill and experience and, at the general hospital, doctors were unsure how to care for such a young girl.
Working closely with her family and the authorities, my team at Marie Stopes transferred her to our clinic in Mexico City. I sat with her in the recovery room and held her hand. We both cried as I told her: “You are safe. Everyone you see is here to care for you and help you heal. You are very important to all of us.”
Children exposed to violence and rape bear both emotional and physical scars, and we as a healthcare community are obligated to help them in any way we can. With the help of a psychologist Maria was able to start to move on with her life after the end of her traumatic and life-threatening pregnancy.
Today another child in Paraguay faces a much bleaker future. Just 10 years old, she was a victim of sexual assault by her stepfather. Now pregnant with her rapist’s baby, she is a victim of a system that is denying her access to a life-saving abortion.
As the mother of a 10-year-old girl, it is heart-breaking. I feel at a loss for words at the pure torture this young girl is enduring. This child doesn’t understand what being pregnant means but is nonetheless being forced to carry to term. Now, with her mother imprisoned after being accused of failing in her duty of care, her main source of support has been taken away, leaving her to face this horror alone.
As the country director of Marie Stopes Mexico, it’s enraging. Healthcare providers have a duty to serve all, especially the most vulnerable women in the direst circumstances, not compound their trauma. The World Health Organisation is clear that pregnancy poses a risk to young girls whose bodies are not fully developed. Yet, in this case and many others, access to safe abortion has not yet been provided – and what is worse, machismo on the part of Paraguay’s male decision-makers may be the biggest stumbling block.
Our message to them is this: if you don’t know what to do, let us help. Base your decision on what is best for this little girl and pay for her and her mother to come to Mexico. Your response to this girl’s plight will be heralded as intelligent and brave, and we can help her, just like we helped Maria.
In Mexico, the numbers speak for themselves. In 2006, nearly 150,000 women were hospitalised for abortion-related complications – the country’s fourth leading cause of maternal mortality. But since 2007, when Mexico City legalised abortion, not a single death has been recorded.
It is simple: access to safe abortions saves lives. Yet while the change in the law in Mexico City – to decriminalise abortion care – was a monumental step forward, it has only benefited women lucky enough to live here or who have the money to travel.
Restricting services does not prevent or even decrease the need for, or rate of, abortions. It simply ensures a two-tiered system under which women with money have options, while a little girl from Paraguay is forced to have her rapist’s baby.
* Names have been changed to protect identities.
Carla Eckhardt is director of Marie Stopes Mexico.