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Argentina’s historic vote to decriminalize abortion, explained

Argentina’s Senate is debating a bill that decriminalizes abortion. It probably won’t become law, but activists say it’s a victory regardless.

Women take part in a march organized in the “Ni Una Menos” (“Not One Less”) movement against violence against women and in demand of the right to a safe, free, and legal abortion in Buenos Aires, on June 4, 2018.
Women take part in a march organized in the “Ni Una Menos” (Not One Less) movement against violence against women and in demand of the right to a safe, free, and legal abortion in Buenos Aires on June 4, 2018.
Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images

Across Latin America, 97 percent of women live in countries with restrictive abortion laws. Argentina’s Senate will likely vote Thursday on a historic bill that would legalize abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The bill passed the lower house of the legislature by a close vote, 129-125, but it faces an uphill battle in the more conservative Senate. Still, activists see the fact that the issue is being voted on at all as a major step for women’s rights in the country and throughout the region.

The bill is part of a broader women’s rights movement, “Ni Una Menos” — meaning “Not One Less” — directed at stopping violence against women, including murder.

“Even if it doesn’t go through, this is a massive step to legalize abortion,” Emma Conn, a writer at the English-language Argentine news outlet the Bubble, told me in June. “Whatever happens, everyone has noted that this has been a significant cultural change, so even if the bill is rejected, it’s not going away.”

A protest movement addressing violence against women gave space for a broader debate about women’s rights in Argentina, including abortion

Abortion is illegal in Argentina except in cases of rape or when the life or health of the woman is at risk. But even in such circumstances, abortions are difficult to obtain, especially in provinces where there are no guidelines for how providers should proceed or what they’re legally required to do, said Shena Cavallo, a program officer at the International Women’s Health Coalition.

And even in cases where obtaining an abortion is legal, many providers still refuse to perform them. “A lot of the current situation is really luck of the draw. It really depends on where you live in the country and what type of provider you encounter,” Cavallo said.

Even though abortion is illegal in Argentina, that doesn’t mean it’s uncommon. According to the country’s Ministry of Health, 500,000 clandestine or illegal abortions are performed there each year in a population of approximately 44 million people. According to the Health Ministry’s statistics, of the 245 maternal deaths in Argentina in 2016, 43 were caused by abortions, making it one of the top causes of maternal mortality.

Six bills have been presented to the Argentine Congress over the past 13 years that would decriminalize abortion, with little success. But a new push to get legislators to take up the debate has gotten further. Activist groups such as the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion and Catholics for the Right to Decide Argentina have been able to insert their cause into the Ni Una Menos movement and draw broader attention to women’s causes in the country.

The Ni Una Menos movement, started in 2015, is a campaign against gender-based violence. It began in Argentina after a surge of media reports of women being killed by their husbands, boyfriends, or partners, and it has spread across multiple Latin American countries. Argentina has a history of public protest — it is not uncommon for major city streets and roadways to be shut down for hours or days because of protest — and multiple Ni Una Menos marches have taken place.

This new wave of feminism has spurred more women to speak out about a variety of issues, including abortion. Activists see illegal abortion as another way of keeping women oppressed.

“If the law doesn’t pass, Argentine women would be stuck in the current, harmful status quo in which they are forced to undergo illegal and unsafe abortions that put their lives and health at risk,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, who testified before the Argentine Congress in May, arguing that the decriminalization of abortion is a public health and human rights imperative.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri called for Congress to debate the abortion issue earlier this year, over the opposition of the Catholic Church, which is still a major force in Argentina and throughout Latin America. Macri has not come out in favor of the bill and has tried to keep a distance from the discussion, encouraging those within his party to keep the discussion civil. He has said he won’t veto a bill if it passes.

“The single largest factor, without a doubt, has been the women’s movement and the way they have been able to become a powerful force of change in Argentina and ... position demands for safe, legal, and free abortion at the center of their movement,” said Cavallo of the International Women’s Health Coalition in June. “Patriarchy penetrates and is pervasive throughout Argentine society. There’s a link between violence against women and the denial of safe, legal abortion services.”

President Macri, while personally against abortion, has encouraged debate

The politics of the debate aren’t easy — or divided along party lines.

The future of the current bill being debated in the Senate is tenuous. The local organization Economía Feminista (Feminist Economy) is keeping a running tally of the yes, no, and undecided votes in both chambers, which indicates that senators oppose the bill by a slight margin.

Conn, from the Bubble, said in June legislators aren’t splitting their votes along party lines but instead are being told by leaders they are “free to vote with their conscience.” More conservative members seem likely to vote against the bill than progressives, but there aren’t any clear separations. “It’s hard to delineate by party line,” she said.

President Macri has kept a distance from the issue, even as he’s encouraged debate and promised not to veto a bill that passes. The next presidential elections are in 2019, and he’s trying not to rock the boat.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s former president, has also wavered, Conn said, sometimes seeming like she’s for it, sometimes against. “It’s all very much a political game,” she said. “Everyone’s being a little bit cagey.”

Pope Francis, who is originally from Argentina, hasn’t said anything explicit about the law itself, but he has been clear in his opposition to abortion, said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, in June. He adopted a document in March 2018 — in the middle of the debate in Argentina over whether to bring the abortion bill to Congress — that says the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion needs to be “clear, firm, and passionate.”

Win or lose, activists say the “green wave” isn’t over

Given the influence of the Catholic Church, which opposes abortion, in Argentina and throughout Latin America, if Argentina were to pass its abortion bill, it would be a “significant step” for the region, Vivanco, from Human Rights Watch, said.

“That a country such as Argentina would adopt a progressive law as the one that is being considered, following a recent reform in Chile ending the absolute prohibition on abortion, would send a strong message that key players in the region are moving in the same direction as other developed democracies worldwide,” Vivanco said.

Activists believe getting it to a vote in Congress is a victory, regardless of the outcome, and a sign of more progress to come.

“We won. Whatever the result,” tweeted Argentine journalist and women’s rights proponent Mariana Carbajal in June, referring to the green scarves worn by the women of the pro–abortion rights movement. “The green wave is unstoppable. We’ve opened consciences. And there’s no turning back.”

Abortion legalization supporters plan to continue to build momentum and take advantage of the current media coverage, much of which has been in the pro-abortion rights camp. “The demand for safe, legal abortion is a demand that many people have been able to buy into,” Cavallo said. “It has also become a demand linked to citizenship in Argentina and human rights, and we think the process can continue to move forward.”

But even if the bill does pass and President Macri signs it, it doesn’t mean the issue of abortion access will be solved.

Broader society’s perceptions may be changing, but there’s still a deep-rooted Catholic belief system, especially outside of the Buenos Aires Province, where the capital is located, and in more rural provinces to the north and to the west. “Should [the law] pass, making sure it’s implemented and applicable for all will be another struggle,” Conn said.