Argentina took a big stride towards making history on Friday as lawmakers in the lower house voted to legalize abortion.
The move sent a jolt of euphoria through the country’s feminist movement, and hope to others in the conservative region lobbying for similar changes.
After a marathon 20-hour debate, a bill that will legalize and decrminialize abortion up until the 14th week of pregnancy was passed, with 131 votes in favor, 117 against with six abstentions.
But the battle for access to safe and legal abortion in Argentina isn’t over. Now, the Senate must give its approval for the bill to become law.
“I’m very emotional. It’s halfway there, it’s a huge achievement, so we’re very happy,” said Soledad Deza, a lawyer who represented Belen, a woman who was jailed for 29 months after suffering a miscarriage. Belen’s case became emblematic of the consequences of illegal abortion in Argentina.
“We believe that the recognition of sexual sovereignty is part of this government project so we hope that the Senate is up to the task,” said Deza.
The Senate rejected a similar bill in 2018, but this time legalization advocates feel the wind is in their favor, in large part due to the support of President Alberto Fernandez. He’s the first head of state to sponsor a legalization bill in the predominantly Catholic country.
Abortion in Latin America is only nationally legal in Cuba and Uruguay, both small countries. In Mexico, it is allowed in Mexico City and the state of Oaxaca, and during varying, early stages of pregnancy in Guyana and French Guiana.
If Argentina ultimately legalizes abortion, it would be the largest country to do so in Latin America, a region with strict anti-abortion laws that jail women who violate them.
Currently, abortion is only allowed in Argentina in cases of rape or if a mother’s life or health is at risk. The proposed legislation continues to permit those legal exceptions past 14 weeks. It also allows medical professionals to declare a conscientious objection and states that private institutions that are made up entirely of conscientious objectors must refer the pregnant person to another medical institution for care.
An estimated 370,000 to 522,000 abortions happen in Argentina every year, the vast majority of them in unsafe, clandestine procedures. Some 38,000 women are hospitalized annually due to botched abortions, and since 1983, more than 3,000 women have died as a result, according to government figures. Since 2012, at least 73 women in Argentina have been accused of a crime, prosecuted or jailed for an abortion or another obstetric event, according to new research. Lower income women bear the brunt of the prohibition, and more likely to be prosecuted or undergo risky procedures in secret.
“This law does not belong to any president, or any government. This law is one more victory for the women’s movement,” Silvia Lospennato, a member of the opposition, told the chamber.
The debate was deeply personal. One legislator shared that her grandmother had died of an abortion. Another talked about listening to his nieces who wore the green scarf that has become a symbol of the feminist movement. Men said they were deconstructing themselves in a patriarchal society and urged their colleagues to check their privileges.
Hilda Aguirre, a legislator for the conservative province of La Rioja, recalled a conversation she had heard when she was nine years old, at a vegetable stand in her poor community, about a girl who had an abortion. “They said the person who was responsible for the pregnancy was her uncle.”
Marisa Uceda, a legislator from the governing coalition, said the only thing that separates the yes and no sides is their ability to see reality or not.
“Abortion will either be legal or it will be clandestine, but it will happen. Gentlemen, ladies: women abort.”
Those against legalization continued to argue that abortion is unconstitutional in Argentina — an argument others rejected, since the legal exceptions have been in place since 1921. Opponents maintained there are limits to what a woman should be able to decide.
“I am in favor of life in absolute terms,” said Natalia Villa, legislator for the province of Buenos Aires, who called the abortion debate “opportunistic” and “a smoke screen to cover a country that is falling to pieces” in the midst of an economic and health crisis.
“I don’t understand at all how this is a priority,” said the legislator Vanesa Masetani, a member of the governing block of Frente de Todos, who voted against the project.
But the debate showed how views have changed.
Carlos Cisneros, another legislator for the province of Tucuman, was undecided prior to the president presenting his bill. He said in his state, abortions that happen in secret are still done with sewing needles, and he wondered where the outrage was over that.
“As a state we have to respond to the injustices that women suffer. We’re in the year 2020 and we’re still criminalizing women, using a penal code that is 100 years old,” he said.