News Argentina abortion law passed today, reform changes legalize 2020

Argentina shifts for legal abortion, calling for women's rights

Argentina's president, Alberto Fernández, has made women's and gay and transgender rights central to his government through recession and pandemics.

Argentine lawmakers took a big move on Friday to legalize abortion and fulfill President Alberto Fernández's pledge to make women's rights a core tenet of his administration.

The bill's passage of 131 to 117 votes in Argentina's lower house of Congress, after more than 20 hours of debate, was a legislative triumph for Mr. Fernández, who devoted funding and political capital to improving conditions for women and gay and transgender people, even as Argentina wrestles with the biggest financial crisis in a decade. The bill will also need to pass through the country's Senate to legally legalize abortion.

"To say it's one thing or another is a false dilemma," said Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Argentina's minister of women, gender and diversity. "It's not like stopping debt renegotiation to pursue those policies."

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Friday, abortion rights advocates are celebrating outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as Argentina's lower house passes a bill that would legalize abortion.

Argentina will only become the fourth country — and by far the most populous — to legalize abortion in Latin America, where strict abortion laws are the standard, and Catholic teaching has long guided policy.

Thousands of demonstrators from both sides surrounded Congress from Thursday night to Friday morning after the giant screens debate.

Based on their positions, they were divided into specifically designated zones. On the one hand, abortion rights demonstrators turned their field into an open-air festival, dancing through the humid summer night.

"I've got goose bumps," said Stefanía Gras, a 22-year-old psychology student who stayed overnight after the vote. "I feel like making history."

Another, notably smaller party opposed to legalization, performed open-air prayers all night, while most agreed the bill was likely to pass as the morning light crept into heaven.

"I feel deep sadness," Paloma Guevara, a 24-year-old nutritionist who had a megaphone, rallied all night with anti-abortion demonstrators. "The Senate is now our hope, and the good thing is we're more prepared than we were two years ago."

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Congress' lower house debated Thursday's abortion bill.

Mr. Fernández, a center-left law school professor, campaigned as champion of disadvantaged groups, contrasted with his affluent, center-right predecessor, Mauricio Macri. He put gender and sexual difference alongside social, economic, and racial inequality and vowed to fix them.

But a year ago, during a deep recession, he took office, and the coronavirus outbreak hit Argentina within three months of swearing in. The country instituted one of the world's longest and most rigorous lockdowns, but the virus still spread, leaving it among nations with the highest death rates per capita.

Despite these hardships, Mr. Fernandez, 61, held gender and sexual orientation parity in his government a priority, confounding even some activists associated with his initiatives.

The government established a quota structure earlier this year, setting aside at least one percent of federal public-sector workers for Argentines transgender.

"It really surprised us all," said Maryanne Lettieri, an English teacher who heads an organization that helps transgender fellows find work. "I hope we don't need quotas, but we need them now."

Mr. Fernández's 2021 budget describes more than 15% of the estimated spending as going to projects that will further gender diversity, including funding services for abuse reduction, getting women who were not part of the traditional workforce into the pension system and reducing sex trafficking.

Mr. Fernández also asked his staff to stop scheduling meetings with straight men. Since August, any audience of more than four presidents should have women or members of the L.G.B.T.Q. group making up one-third of the participants.

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Anti-abortion demonstrators reacting after Friday's vote outside the National Congress

The emphasis on making Argentina more egalitarian as the nation clashes with inflation, increasing poverty, and crippling debt may seem like Mr. Fernández's distraction or populist trick. Some opponents, including Patricia Bullrich, a former security minister who now leads Mr. Macri's PRO party, argued that at least "it's not the right time" to address controversial topics like abortion.

"I'd work much more on the economy and people's realities," she said on Argentina's CNN radio. "I would have other priorities."

But government officials claim they see investments as part of the road to a more prosperous future, making Argentina a fairer country.

"More equality and access to opportunities is part of the vision we pursue in this government," said economic minister Martín Guzmán.

The abortion bill, which would make it legal to terminate pregnancies up to 14 weeks, is the highest-profile and most controversial aspect of the strategy.

Abortion in Argentina is now approved only in rape cases or when pregnancy presents a danger to mother's health. However, doctors, particularly in rural areas, are often reluctant to practice even legal abortions for fear of legal repercussions.

At least 65 people died from abortion complications between 2016 and 2018, according to a study by Argentina's Safe Abortion Network. In the same period, 7,262 girls aged 10 to 14 gave birth.

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Center President Alberto Fernández campaigned as a champion of marginalized communities and made gender and sexual orientation priorities in his administration

Argentina came close to legalizing abortion in 2018, amid loud opposition from churches and from Argentine Pope Francis. Mr. Macri, then president, said he opposed the initiative but encouraged allies to vote their consciences.

Drawing a strong contrast with his predecessor, Mr. Fernández presented the bill to Congress last month showing a green tie, the color that came to reflect the campaign to legalize abortion.

"I am convinced that care for the life and health of those who decide to interrupt their pregnancy is the responsibility of the state," Mr. Fernández said in a Twitter video.

He fulfilled a campaign pledge that some feared reproductive rights advocates would get lost in the heavy toll that the coronavirus took on Argentina and the economic crisis. The bill was released as Mr. Fernández's team tried to renegotiate its $44 billion in debt to the International Monetary Fund and reopen a paralyzed economy.

Political observers saw support of the abortion bill in Argentina's lower legislative house, where most lawmakers made their stance known even before the discussion began as a deal. The toughest obstacle for abortion-rights advocates will come in the Senate, where the bill failed narrowly in 2018, after facing heavy resistance from senators from rural provinces, where Roman Catholic and Evangelical churches are more swayed.

Despite the defeat, the huge movement ahead of the 2018 vote galvanized a new wave of feminists in Argentina who took to the streets in large numbers to fight for legal abortion and greater representation.

Legalizing abortion will satisfy one of the movement's key demands, handing Mr. Fernández his greatest legislative triumph, providing more momentum to a national effort that has already begun to reshape Argentina.

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Women staying overnight at the National Congress building in Buenos Aires

As the pandemic hit women particularly hard, making them the majority among the newly unemployed, Argentina led the way as the country that took the most gender-sensitive measures to respond to the crisis, according to a UN Development Program database.

"In Argentina, the pandemic has fully exposed the gender inequality," said Mercedes D'Alessandro, who heads the Ministry of Economy's equality and gender department. "Even in such an adverse context, this agenda has moved forward."

Rising Argentina's emphasis on gender equality comes at a time when other countries in the region are also ensuring women have a say in government decisions.

For example, in neighboring Chile, November's voters approved a referendum to draft a new constitution that also mandated gender representation among delegates to the constitutional convention. This will make the country the world's first charter written by the same number of men and women.

Yet few steps are expected to have as much regional effect as when Argentina joins Cuba, Uruguay, and Guyana in legalizing abortion.

Argentina's Congress is set to vote on whether to legalise abortion.
If the bill passes, Argentina will be among only a few Latin American countries to allow the procedure on request, after currently allowing it only in cases of rape or if the mother's life is at risk.
Al Jazeera's Teresa Bo reports from Buenos Aires.
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