Argentina Might Be About to Deliver Latin America's Biggest Abortion Rights Win

The president just sent a bill to congress that could legalize abortion completely.
November 18, 2020, 3:38pm
Demonstrators hold a banner outside the Congress during a demonstration in favor of decriminalization of abortion on the International Safe Abortion Day on September 28 2020 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The battle over reproductive rights is taking center stage again in Argentina as the country’s congress considers a new bill to legalize abortion, this time with the backing of the president. 

If approved, the country of 45 million would become the largest to permit the procedure to such an extent in Latin America, a region with strict anti-abortion laws that include incarceration in some countries for those who violate them.  

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“Criminalizing abortion has been of no use. It’s only allowed abortions to occur in clandestine fashion, in worrying numbers,” said Argentine President Alberto Fernandez in a message posted to Twitter on Tuesday. 

“Legalizing abortion saves women’s lives and it preserves their reproductive capacity, which is often affected by unsafe abortions. It doesn’t increase the number of abortions and it doesn’t promote it. It just solves a problem that affects public health.”

Abortion is currently legal in Argentina in cases of rape or if the life or health of the mother is at risk, although women confront obstacles accessing it depending on where they live in the country. 

The proposed bill, which requires the approval of Congress, decriminalizes and legalizes abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, and allows it beyond that period when the pregnancy is the result of rape, or the person’s life is at risk. It seeks to provide terminations of pregnancy free of charge in the public, private and social security health system. 

It allows medical professionals to declare a conscientious objection to performing the procedure, but says they must refer the person to someone who will carry it out in a timely manner. 

Tuesday was historic in that it marked the first time a bill to legalize abortion has had the endorsement of the president of Argentina. 

It comes a little over two years since the predominantly Catholic country had a dramatic debate over a similar bill. That version, in 2018, won approval in the lower house of Deputies, but ultimately failed in the Senate. Nonetheless, it served to strengthen the various forces that make up Argentina’s broad and powerful women’s movement, installing abortion in the public agenda with conversations that had long been considered taboo. Now, the green scarf of abortion rights in Argentina is a symbol that is seen on the wrists of women across Latin America.  

In the region, elective abortion is legal in the first trimester in Uruguay, Mexico City, the Mexican state of Oaxaca, Guyana and Cuba. Other countries permit it in specific circumstances, and a few ban it completely, such as Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, the latter of which has convicted at least 42 women of attempted or aggravated homicide under its draconian anti-abortion law after they suffered miscarriages or other pregnancy complications

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“We’ve always said that legalizing abortion is a human rights imperative, it’s something that will turn us into a more equal society,” said Mariela Belski, executive director of Amnesty International Argentina, who celebrated the president’s announcement.

The current illegality of abortion makes it impossible to know how many terminations occur in Argentina annually, but the government cites 2005 statistics that estimate it to be between 370,000 and 520,000. 

Fernandez said 38,000 women are hospitalized every year due to botched abortions, and that more than 3,000 women have died as a result of clandestine terminations since 1983. 

Fernandez, who leads the ruling Peronist coalition in Argentina, also presented a second bill aimed at providing more support to expectant mothers who need assistance, and their children, including the extension of a financial subsidy for children in low income families. 

Belski said the two proposed laws showed that the government took a hard look at the issues that arose in the 2018 debate and is seeking to address the demands of both sides. 

She hoped the debate could occur respectfully, noting that those who oppose legalization have become louder in the intervening years. 

“We saw on the weekend a very strong attack against a legislator who is in favor of abortion,” she said. “They protested at his house.”

Fernandez’s announcement coincided with a day that marked the tradition of activism in Argentina, which drew thousands of people to the streets of Buenos Aires. In front of the National Congress, speakers made reference to the legalization bill, as women with green scarves danced and embraced.

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“Women shouldn’t have to risk our lives because we are making autonomous decisions about our bodies,” said Daniela Parra, a 37 year old woman who said she nearly died when she had a clandestine abortion a few years ago. 

“To Latin America, that is watching us, it’s also about showing that the collective struggles are the ones that triumph,” said Claudia Perugino, 55, another supporter.

The timing of the vote is not yet clear. The ordinary sessions of Congress end on November 30, but government officials have said they intend to have the matter heard in extraordinary sessions during the summer months, slated between December and February. 

Belski said the vote for approval in the house of Deputies is assured. It will be closer in the Senate, but “according to our count, the numbers are there.” 

“The Peronists never send a project to Congress if they think they’re going to lose,” she has been told by political operatives. “If they’re sending it, it’s because they know the numbers are there.”