Argentina Just Legalized Abortion in Landmark Decision for Latin America

The vote to make terminations legal took place in a region that's home to some of the world's most draconian anti-abortion laws.
December 30, 2020, 3:24pm
pro-abortion lobbyists celebrate in argentina
An abortion-rights activist celebrates outside Argentina’s National Congress after  abortion was legalized  in Buenos Aires on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. Credit: Anita Pouchard Serra, Bloomberg via Getty Images.

BUENOS AIRES — In a landmark decision, Argentina has legalized abortion up until the 14th week of pregnancy. 

The historic decision came shortly after 4 in the morning on December 30, following a 12-hour debate in the country’s Senate. Lawmakers voted 38 for and 29 against, with one abstention. The decision sends a sign of hope for those lobbying for legal terminations across Latin America, which has some of the world’s most draconian anti-abortion laws. 

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The vote sent throngs of people gathered outside the National Congress into fits of joy, jumping up and down, dancing, embracing, and crying over a battle many could not believe had been won. 

The new legislation places Argentina, a predominantly Catholic country, on the vanguard of reproductive rights in Latin America. Activists in other parts of the continent have been following the situation closely, hoping to harness that momentum for change in their own backyards. 

“We’ve been waiting for this for so long, it blows your mind,” said Barbara Asselborn, 27, following the vote. “I’m from Buenos Aires, and I aborted. So for me, this is a celebration, because it relieves me of [the possibility of being charged with] manslaughter... To have a law that backs you up, regarding something that happened to you, and was very painful, is really emotional. It’s indescribable.” 

Even before the votes were cast, legalization opponents vowed to take the matter to court. 

In Latin America, only the small nations of Uruguay, Cuba, and Guyana, along with Mexico City and the Mexican state of Oaxaca, permit women to terminate their pregnancies without having to give a reason. Argentina, which has a population of 45 million, is by far now the largest jurisdiction to make elective abortion legal. 

Wednesday’s vote comes just two years after the Argentine Senate rejected a similar bill. This time was different, as it was presented by President Alberto Fernandez, who campaigned in 2019 to legalize abortion and adopted many of the ideas put forward by the feminist movement over the years. 

He celebrated the victory in a tweet: "Today we are a better society that widens the rights of women and guarantees public health.” 

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Mariela Belski, executive director of Amnesty International in Argentina, echoed him. “To be able to end a very difficult year guaranteeing more rights for the collective of women and people with the ability to gestate is an immense joy,” she told VICE World News. 

Wednesday’s vote marked the culmination of a decades-long campaign waged by feminists who stood on street corners in the ’90s, with placards demanding the right to decide over their bodies. The campaign took on new urgency in recent years, fueled by a younger generation of feminists who began wearing the green scarf that symbolizes the legalization campaign, and also make up Ni Una Menos (Not One Less), a movement against high rates of violence against women. 

Abortion was illegal in Argentina except in cases of rape or if the life or health of a mother was at risk. And yet, the government estimates between 370,000 to 522,000 abortions happen every year, the vast majority in clandestine conditions that can lead to irrevocable damage, or death. Poor women bear the brunt of that risk, unable to pay the high fees that would secure safer treatment in the confidential confines of private clinics. President Fernandez estimated that 38,000 women end up in hospital due to complications from clandestine abortions every year. Since 1983, more than 3,000 women have died. 

Abortion is still a divisive issue in Argentina, especially in rural and more conservative provinces. The Catholic Church and Pope Francis, who is Argentine, expressed their strong opposition and called on the devout to fast and pray for the law to fail. 

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Opponents also gathered outside the square, separated from pro-abortion lobbyists by a giant fence, and accompanied by a model of a giant fetus covered in blood. In the mid afternoon, they attended mass under the blazing sun and surrounded by crosses that had been installed on a patch of grass. 

Before the debate opened in the Senate, a senator for the northern and conservative province of Tucuman said the fight does not end here. 

“If this bill becomes law, it will be unconstitutional, absolutely and flagrantly,” said Senator Silvia Elias de Perez. “It will be a judge of the nation who ends up deciding because we are going to raise unconstitutionality.”

Legalization was made possible thanks to senators who were new converts to the cause, like Silvina Garcia Larraburu. 

“My vote is for a woman who is free, who can decide by her own conscience,” said the senator for the province of Rio Negro. On Tuesday, dozens of crosses were placed on the lawn of her house in the city of Bariloche. 

“I didn’t change my way of thinking about abortion,” said Lucila Crexell, a senator from the province of Neuquén province who abstained from voting on the issue in 2018. “I changed how I think the issue should be approached. It isn’t about feminism or religion. Clandestine abortion is a silent figure that kills.”

On the street, among pro-choice supporters, the atmosphere was one of festivity. Dance parties broke out in front of tents, women painted each other’s faces in glittering green and sprawled on the pavement to ride out the marathon debate, perusing books by legendary feminists Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua. 

“I had to be here,” said Aylen Aidelman, 22. “I don’t know if I’m going to have children or grandchildren, but the same way that I studied women’s suffrage, this is going to be taught in primary and secondary schools for many years into the future. Because history is being made here.”