I was in Buenos Aires over the past couple of weeks as part of a project I’m working on looking at citizen-generated data - essentially, datasets, whether qualitative or quantitative, that are actively contributed to by individual people. Sometimes this is for a particular social cause, like helping tag photos of deforestation - and other times, it’s contributing to a broader narrative, like sharing stories or experiences about a certain topic, like sexual harrassment.

Often when we talk about such initiatives, we say “anybody can contribute” - but how true is this really? While thinking about data on illegal abortions in Argentina, I came up against a potentially fascinating topic where data is very much needed, but very hard to collect.

At the MediaParty that I attended in Buenos Aires, I attended a workshop on ‘crowd-powerded journalism’, with Amanda Zamora of ProPublica. We got into groups to brainstorm examples of good ‘crowd-powered journalism’ projects, and the group I was in mentioned immediately that this could be a good way to gather data on women’s rights in Argentina.

abortions in Argentina: context

For example - how are abortions taking place? Here in Argentina, abortions are strictly limited: legally, abortion is allowed in cases of rape or when the pregnancy is detrimental to the woman’s health, but obviously, “proving” any of these can be difficult. Additionally, in remote areas that have strong Catholic roots, there are many cases of abortion being denied illegally - and in these cases, presumably it’s difficult for women to know where to go to report this activity as its being enforced by the state itself.

As a result, anecdotal evidence among women’s rights activists in the country highlights it as a problem - and it was brought up by a number of people I spoke to - but there doesn’t seem to be any comprehensive quantitative dataset on the topic. The fact that the current Pope is Argentinian is not helping this patriarchal attitude towards women’s rights and abortions, either.

Given that there is no legal option for women who want to have abortions outside of the incredibly restrictive law, it’s unlikely that these women would identify themselves to any kind of institution or authority. Estimates put the number of illegal abortions at around half a million a year.

It’s important not to underestimate the importance of this issue: according to a Guardian article from 2011:

the Argentine government itself estimates that 30 per cent of maternal deaths are caused by unsafe abortions, making it the biggest cause of maternal death in the country. This is three times bigger than the world average of 10 per cent.

To date, there seems to be very little accurate data available on this topic. Somewhat obviously, women who have had abortions that would be considered “illegal” do not report them anywhere, and the same is true of failed abortions. Especially in the case of illegal abortions, it seems almost impossible to gather those stories without risking putting those women in danger.

collecting abortion data in practice

Thinking through the process around this posed many challenges; for example, what would be the motivation for a woman to tell her story, when she might face legal recourse as a result, or stigma within her community if it were to come out? Given that this issue affects poorer women most strongly, how could women who have been through this experience even be reached through this kind of initiative? And if this kind of initiative were attempted, what kind of data would be necessary to collect, and what would it be important to not collect, to avoid potentially getting the woman or those who helped her, into danger?

The responsible data concerns around this project lead my group to decide that in reality, it would be unfeasible to actually carry it out given our hypothetical time frame. The group next to me, though, decided separately that this was the issue that they would hypothetically gather data on - and the fact that they came up with the same idea separately highlights just how much it is on people’s minds right now.

For advocacy groups wanting to show how much of an issue abortion rights are, having the data or information to strengthen that advocacy could make a big difference. Showing concretely that making abortion illegal doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen - just that it happens in a dangerous way- as well as important stories of women who have had their abortion rights denied, and the effect that this had on their lives.

In theory, citizen-generated data, or citizen journalism initiatives, are a fantastic opportunity for communities who have previously had their rights denied and their voices ignored to tell those stories and (eventually) push for social change. The problems arise, however, around accessibility, and when those stories might be things that governments or institutions don’t want to hear.