The tide is turning for abortion rights in Argentina. On March 6, more than 70 members of Congress supported a bill to decriminalize abortion. The proposed bill would give women the right to access a legal abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy for any and all reasons, without facing criminal charges.
In the past 13 years, 6 such bills have been presented to Congress, with little success. Current Argentinian law only permits abortion when the woman’s life or health is in danger, or in the case of rape. The most recent bill, which would reduce clandestine abortions, has renewed the hopes of feminist activists in the country, not least because the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion played a vital role in shaping the bill. In a country where religion plays an important role, Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir-Argentina (CDD-Argentina), a longtime grantee partner of the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), is one of the leaders of the National Campaign.
The proposed bill to expand abortion access is the culmination of a grassroots movement to advance the right to choose. In February, thousands of women took to the streets of Argentina to demand that the government expand access to safe, legal abortion. A sea of protesters in green scarves—the distinctive emblem of the National Campaign—gathered in front of the National Congress, while the hashtag #AbortoLegalYa (#LegalAbortionNow) trended across social media.
The message was clear: the government must recognize and respond to the realities of abortion restrictions, which force women and girls to seek out back-alley providers in order to end an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy.
On March 2, President Mauricio Macri called on Congress to open the debate on abortion—even as he distanced himself from the issue. He reiterated his anti-abortion stance, and laid out parameters for a “responsible” debate in which a range of opinions and perspectives are heard. Macri’s comments seem to stem from a belated realization that despite his own opposition, the country is clamoring for change and the demand for the right to abortion has become too loud to ignore.
The bill is a product of tireless advocacy and work from Argentina’s strategic, powerful women’s movement. Our grantee partner CDD-Argentina has spent years sensitizing the media on abortion issues, and teaching journalists to cover abortion accurately and in a way that reflects the reality of women who experience unwanted pregnancies. CDD-Argentina has also built public support for and called attention to the disastrous impact of abortion criminalization on the lives of women in Argentina. A prime example is the case of Belén, a woman sentenced to 8 years in prison for “aggravated double homicide” after she experienced a miscarriage and sought medical care.
The commitment to safe, legal, and free abortion lies at the heart of the women’s movement. I witnessed this firsthand at the 2017 Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres (“National Women’s Gathering”), where an astounding 70,000 women convened to learn from one another, strategize, and energize one another. Sex workers, rural women, indigenous women, working class women, women with disabilities, and trans women came together to discuss a wide spectrum of issues that affect women and gender non-conforming people, including violence against women, expanded abortion rights, economic justice, and climate change. That same commitment to abortion was on display earlier this month, when feminists and allies in Argentina marked International Women’s Day with a women’s strike in which reproductive rights figured prominently among the demands.
Unable to deny the growing demand for expanded abortion rights, Congress has agreed, for the first time ever, to move forward with debate on the new bill. (Previous decriminalization bills did not garner enough signatures to reach quorum and open debate.) While the bill has a long road ahead—it must pass through 4 commissions before Congress moves to debate—there’s reason to believe this time will be different.
Unlike in Brazil and Peru, where hard-line evangelicals have consolidated control in local and national legislative bodies, Argentina’s Congress lacks a fundamentalist bloc that is organized and unified in its opposition to women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive rights. At the same time, public support for decriminalizing abortion is on the rise. A recent survey conducted by Amnesty International and IWHC’s grantee partner Centro de Estudios de Estado y Sociedad (CEDES) in partnership with Quiddity shows that more than half of the population fully or partially supports decriminalization. There is also the fact that abortion remains incredibly common in Argentina, despite current restrictions. According to data from the Ministry of Health, between 370,000 to 522,000 clandestine abortions are performed each year, many of them unsafe.
Given these statistics, advocates have focused their energies on ensuring that as many women can access legal abortion as possible until the law changes. CEDES, for example, works with health care providers to build their capacity to offer non-judgmental, quality abortion services, and to understand that the health exception includes mental health and social well-being. In doing so, CEDES has not only helped expand access under the current exceptions, but also has bolstered a cohort of health providers who are well-trained, vocal abortion rights champions.
The new bill is a victory for the women’s movement, but the momentum behind it is the result of years of tireless work on the part of activists; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); the National Campaign; and committed, pro-choice journalists, health providers, lawyers, and others.
The promise of a congressional debate on decriminalization holds enormous regional resonance. Some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world are found in Latin America and the Caribbean—but there are signs that entrenched views on abortion are liberalizing. In 2012, Uruguay decriminalized the procedure, thanks in large part to the persistent efforts of the feminist movement. This past summer, Chile took an historic step to expand access to abortion. If the trend holds, Argentina may be the next country in Latin America to move the needle on abortion rights.
We know that whatever happens, Argentina is edging closer to expanded rights to abortion and it is thanks to years of dedication and determination from women’s rights activists across the country.
Photo: Fotografías Emergentes