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Abortion in Argentina: The challenge of turning Latin America green

Following a decades-long struggle, the legalization of abortion in Argentina has unleashed a tidal wave of feminism across the region but also reactions from the conservative right-wing.

On December 30th we awoke with bated breath.

Congress had begun debating the law on Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy (IVE, in Spanish) the previous afternoon and had continued late into the night. Outside rumors grew and spread in both directions of the plaza, which was divided by a fence. On one side, women covered in green handkerchiefs, clothes and paint danced and chanted slogans against the patriarchy and for the legalization of abortion. On the other side, women who call themselves “pro-life” donned light blue handkerchiefs and waved flags with the words “let’s save both lives.”

Aborto Legal - Argentina

© AntonioLitov / Fotomovimiento - Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Despite the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the square was full. Hours went by, with each senator giving a speech to make their position clear. One of the sides grew increasingly agitated while the other grew silent in disbelief. The same scene could be found across other cities and social networks. The rift grew wider.

By 4 A.M. there was no longer any doubt. The voice of the vice president, Cristina Fernández, confirmed what was to be our new reality: “with 38 votes in favour, 28 against and one abstention, the law has been passed and will be sent to the Executive branch.” Applause and celebratory cries could be heard in the chamber.

In the streets, the feminist crowd exploded in tears and hugs. Glitter-covered teenagers cried alongside women with children and grey-haired friends. In Argentina, for the first time in history, abortion would be legal, safe and free. At last, a law would protect our right to decide over our own bodies.

A story in green and purple

At first sight, Nelly Minyersky looks like an older woman who might quietly while away the days of her well-deserved retirement. But at 92 Nelly is an active lawyer with university teaching experience and an icon of the feminist movement. She began working in family law from the start of her career in the 1970s. As the first female president of the Lawyers’ Association of Buenos Aires, she worked with others to push for expanding sexual and reproductive rights and she spearheaded efforts to pass a law increasing access to contraceptives in the city of Buenos Aires.  

The idea of legalizing abortion came out of the National Women’s Conferences (Encuentros). It gathered steam in 2005 when the national campaign for abortion was created, alongside other organizations, groups and independent feminists. The campaign was organized without any central authorities; it was territorially based and diverse. A common purpose overrode individual interests and political affiliations, bringing together a wide-reaching network of journalists, actresses, writers, educators, health professionals, and even Catholics for the Right to Decide.

The legislation was progressive, as it proposed changes in both the education and healthcare systems. It did not simply decriminalize the practice; it legalized an existing practice that was hidden in the shadows but still occurring in clandestine rooms in dangerous and lethal ways, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable and marginalized women. The counter attacks came from many fronts: the Catholic church sought to impose its beliefs, while the most extremist conservative political groups, journalists and media outlets could not accept that women would make decisions without their consent. “What is interesting about the IVE [law] is that it takes on a cornerstone of the patriarchal system: that the rights over our body should prevail. Although the law has some requirements and limitations, it opens an important pathway.”

Our right to pleasure

The legislation was first considered by Congress in 2018, but it did not garner enough votes to be passed into law. The strong lobby against it coincided with a right-wing government that leaned liberal on the economy but ultraconservative on social issues.  Nonetheless, more than 1.5 million people protested in the plaza. For Nelly, who had seen that legislation shoved in a drawer time and again, it was a dream come true. “We didn’t get the law passed, but there was a huge change. For decades going to a police station to report a rape was looked down upon. We have had experiences of reporting tragic accounts of violence and institutions failing to respond. No one was talking about girls or teenagers who had been raped.” Although there has been a law on the books since 1921 permitting abortion in cases of rape, even today this right continues to be denied in some clinics and hospitals. Minyersky adds that raising awareness of our right to have sexual relations without the obligation to continue pregnancy was important because it denaturalized the patriarchal violence which was bringing greater shame to the victim than the perpetrator. On that day of congressional debate, 8 August 2018, one of the most celebrated testimonies was given by the late senator Pino Solanas, a filmmaker and environmental activist. The then 82-year-old man shared his own experience: when he was 16, his girlfriend had to resort to a clandestine abortion. He called for ending the hypocrisy of safe abortion being available only for the women who can afford it.

“Throughout history no repressive law has been able to stop abortions. God had the grandeur, through his creation, to enable men and women to discover pleasure, Madame President, which is a fundamental human right in this life of profound sacrifices.”

From 2018 to 2020 the arguments did not change much, but the context did. The current government, led by Alberto Fernández, promised to create space for consideration of the legislation, a crucial move on the part of the Executive branch. Most of society understood the importance and took a position. A weakness on the inside of government also became apparent. Congressmen and senators, many of whom had not even read the legislation, made speeches based on their own beliefs and prejudices. The arguments of all stripes were becoming ridiculous. Some compared women to dogs who could carry their pregnancy to term and give their “pups” up for adoption. Others argued that the law was unconstitutional because it did not consider the existence of human rights from the moment of conception, even though there are no contradictions or international human rights treaties which invalidate the option of abortion.

In Congress, there were denunciations of abuse by so-called conscientious objectors who had denied abortion services to girls who had been raped or women with high-risk pregnancies. In addition, some raised the issue of women who had been charged for having a miscarriage, as in the case of Belén, a woman who was jailed on spurious charges based on the suspicion that she had had an abortion.

“Despite our faith, our prayers, our doctrine, we have failed because we have come to understand all too late the importance of sex education and contraceptive access. We have not managed to save the lives of any women or any life at all,” shared Senator Gladys González, a practicing Catholic. She received threats from members of her own church when she voted for the legislation in 2018. In 2020, even more resolute in her position, she called for a health system based on equity and an open-doors policy.

Legalization and beyond

The law on Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy (IVE Law 27.610) allows women and pregnant people to decide to interrupt their pregnancy up until and including the 14th week of gestation, with exceptions for documented cases of rape or health risk. Service is to be provided within 10 days of the request, and patients are granted the right to receive decent treatment and respect for their privacy by healthcare workers, as well as the right to receive information on the methods for interrupting pregnancy and their effects. In cases of conscientious objection on the part of the practitioner or institution, the patient must be given a referral and service provided by another professional or healthcare establishment. No one can deny service provision if the pregnant person’s health is in danger.

At the same time, the law of a 1000 days was passed. This new law provides government assistance to maternity hospitals serving low-income communities for the first three years of the child’s life, so that poverty will not be a cause of pregnancy interruption.  

Passed on 14 January 2021 and put into effect on the 24th of the same month, the law represents a major legal step forward in Argentina. It is not a coincidence that the decriminalization of abortion is being debated in Chile or that Honduras has passed a reform prohibiting any attempt at decriminalization. In Brazil and Venezuela efforts are afoot to further criminalize abortion. While abortion is legal in Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana and Puerto Rico, it is prohibited in most countries of Central America. And in Mexico, it is only allowed in the state of Oaxaca and Mexico City.

In El Salvador the case of “Manuela” could represent a turning point. There abortion has been illegal with no exceptions since 1998. Manuela, who lived in a rural area and was a mother of two, suffered a miscarriage and went to the hospital for a severe hemorrhage. Instead of providing her care, the medical staff blamed her for her condition and notified the authorities. She was accused of homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison. In 2010 she died while in prison of lymphoma, which had gone undiagnosed and untreated.

The Centro de Derechos Reproductivos (Centre for Reproductive Rights) and other feminist groups have brought the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, on behalf of thousands of women who have been criminalized for obstetric emergencies. We can collaborate by sending letters to the judges asking them to issue a verdict on the Salvadoran state’s violation of Manuela’s basic human rights and to order reparations for her family.

Now more than ever, the setbacks are not slowing down the campaign for safe and legal abortion. Organized groups, such as the international group Women First Digital or the Argentine network Socorristas en Red, are distributing information, facilitating access to Misoprostol pills, and educating people on how to induce an abortion at home.

The road ahead for Latin America remains long and rocky. Anti-abortion groups aim to intervene both in places where the state has a policy in place and where those deciding to abort remain unprotected. That is why it is important for people to understand that more lives will be saved when abortion is legal. While exact numbers are not available, it is estimated that between 350,000 and 500,000 clandestine abortions were being performed each year in Argentina and hundreds of women were dying from complications. The law will protect us and, as philosopher Diana Maffía and also Nelly Minyersky have pointed out, “When you expand rights you are not forcing anyone to do it.”

For Mexican journalist and writer Cecilia González, who has lived in Argentina for almost 20 years, watching the development of the campaign for abortion was a lesson on the value of diversity, plurality, and horizontal relations among local feminists. The author of “Al gran pueblo argentino” [“To the Great Argentine People”] and specialist on the subject of drug trafficking covered important occasions in Argentine history, including the massive mobilizations of women. She decided to do her work as a journalist without putting herself in the spotlight in front of the cameras. Her process as a feminist brought about both hits and misses, generating discomfort among some women due to a sense of competition or a measuring on the “feminist-o-meter” of who was a better or worse feminist. What remains, and what we share, are the experiences. And those continue to grow in number.  

The coexistence of different discourses, the diversity of feminist communities, the patience involved in the process of organizing in the streets and institutions—all of these offer a lesson which goes beyond the language of demand, says philosopher Noelia Billi. “An impressive volume of consciousness raising material, practices and theories—of activism, organization, militancy—has been produced so that pregnant bodies are no longer seen as a site governed by destiny, but a space of material freedom.”

Latin America