Argentina Legalizes Abortion in a Conservative Country, a landmark
Wednesday's Senate vote was a significant victory for the growing feminist movement in Latin America, and it is likely that its ripple effects are widespread.
On Wednesday, Argentina became Latin America's largest nation to legalize abortion, a historic vote in a conservative area and a win for a grass-roots movement that turned political influence into years of rallies.
The high-stakes vote in the Senate gripped the nation into the early morning, and the approval of the measure came after 12 hours of sometimes dramatic debate, by a wider-than-expected margin of 38 to 29, with one abstention, revealing the tensions between the long-dominant Roman Catholic Church, whose dominance is diminishing, and a rising feminist movement.
As it unfolded, crowds of both critics and proponents of abortion rights watched the Senate debate closely, camping out in the plaza around the neo-Classical Congress Building, shouting, cheering and praying as they sought to sway a handful of undecided senators to their respective camps.
The President of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, has vowed to sign the bill into law, making it permissible for women to terminate pregnancies for up to 14 weeks for any reason. After that, exceptions for incest and the mother's health would be permitted.
It is likely that the impact of the legalization vote would spread through Latin America, galvanizing proponents of reproductive rights elsewhere in the region and leaving them optimistic that other socially conservative nations would follow suit.
The only other countries in Latin America to allow abortion upon request are Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana. Argentina had historically allowed abortion, as a number of other countries in the region, in cases of rape or if pregnancy posed a danger to the health of a woman; other Latin American countries have tighter restrictions or absolute prohibitions.
Tamara Taraciuk Broner, deputy director of the Americas for Human Rights Watch, said, "Legalizing abortion in Argentina is a huge victory that protects fundamental rights and will inspire change in Latin America." "However, it is predictable that this will mobilize pro-life groups, too."
The legalization of abortion in Argentina was a striking rebuke from Pope Francis, who on the eve of the vote inserted himself into the bitter political debate in his homeland, praising a group of women from poor communities for their anti-abortion activism. It was also a setback for the fast-growing Protestant evangelical churches in the region, which had joined forces with the Catholic Church to oppose the move.
"I feel a deep sense of anguish that the right to life is not respected in this country that I love," said Abigail Pereira, 27, who was out protesting against legalization in Buenos Aires. "But I'll continue to fight."
The vote was a big legislative win for Mr. Fernández, the center-left president of Argentina, who has made the rights of women central to the agenda of his government.
But it was largely a victory for the grass-roots supporters of abortion rights in Argentina, who have recently paved the way for other profound changes in the cultural and political environment of the country, including marriage equality, gender equity initiatives and transgender rights, and made Argentina a bellwether of changes in the region that have gained wider traction.
By a vote of 131 to 117, Argentina's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, approved the bill earlier this month. Two years ago, it also passed a similar measure, only to see it fail in the Senate, 38 to 31; at the time, the president, Mauricio Macri, said he was personally opposed to legalization, but promised not to veto the bill if it did so through Congress.
On a platform that included reproductive rights, gender equality and gay and transgender rights, Mr. Fernández campaigned for the presidency, and he has followed through on those promises to a degree that has shocked even some of his supporters.
Abortion bill backers, including Senator Norma Durango, said legalizing abortion would simply take the procedure out of the shadows. Researchers estimate that every year in Argentina, hundreds of thousands of underground abortions are performed.
According to the latest available data from the Ministry of Health, about 40,000 people were hospitalized for complications related to abortions in 2016, while at least 65 women died from complications between 2016 and 2018, according to a study by the Access to Safe Abortion Network in Argentina.
"Ms. Durango, who was the first lawmaker to speak during the debate that began Tuesday, said, "I am sitting here today representing all the women who have died from clandestine abortions. "Abortion is a reality and since time immemorial it has been taking place."
The drive to loosen the abortion laws in Argentina is decades old, but it has received a boost from the feminist Ni Una Menos movement, which was founded in 2015 to protest violence against women and has since been the driving force behind the campaign to legalize abortion.
In many Latin American nations, including Mexico, the emblem of that effort in Argentina, green handkerchiefs, has caught on, where women sporting them have poured into the streets seeking greater respect for their rights.
Paula Ávila-Guillen, executive director of the Women's Equality Center, said, "The green movement which began in Argentina has taken over the entire region." "As a symbol of legalizing abortion, every activist from Mexico to Argentina wears a green handkerchief."
On Tuesday afternoon, just a few hours before the Senate took up the bill, Pope Francis, who, as pontiff, tried to distance himself from Argentina's political debates, released a letter that appeared to be addressed to a handful of senators who had not yet made their position clear.
"In order to tell us that every outcast is a child of God, the Son of God was born an outcast," he wrote on Twitter. "He has come into the world as every child comes into the world, weak and vulnerable, so that with tender love we can learn to accept our weaknesses."
On Monday, Catholic and Evangelical leaders called on followers to observe a day of prayer and fasting to focus on "the killing of so many innocent kids." Church leaders sought to galvanize the faithful throughout the year, and there were major anti-abortion marches throughout the world.
Opponents of legal abortion, who appear to wear baby blue, revealed a huge doll on Tuesday that looked like a fetus, sprayed with fake blood.
After taking office at the end of 2019, Mr. Fernández, a law professor who has long advocated legalizing abortion, made it a campaign pledge and an early legislative goal. The decision posed political risks, as he took over the reins of a struggling economy that had been in recession for two years and ordered one of the world's strictest coronavirus lockdowns shortly afterwards.
But Mr. Fernández and his vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, came to see abortion as one of the few things they could advance in the midst of a flood of problems on their agenda. During much of her political career, Ms. Kirchner, who led Argentina as president from 2007 to 2015, opposed legalizing abortion.
In the lead-up to the vote in 2018, her stance changed after tens of thousands of women protested across Argentina in favor of keeping access to abortion legal on request. Ms. Kirchner, a senator at the time, said that her daughter had played a crucial role in changing her mind.
"We've managed to get people to change their positions through our years of activism," said Celeste Mac Dougall, an advocate for abortion rights. "The most evident example that opinions can change is Cristina Fernández de Kirchner."