Is Argentina about to legalise abortion?

Women rally for abortion rights, in front of Congress in Buenos Aires in February.

“Sexual education to decide, birth control to not abort, legal abortion to not die!” For over a decade, this has been the rallying cry behind Argentina’s National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion, and for the first time it seems like it may become a reality.

Founded in 2005, the National Campaign is made up of a diverse coalition of feminist activists and social and political organisations. Organising through national and local women’s meetings, the National Campaign has worked from the bottom up to build a powerful feminist movement.

The success of the campaign comes alongside the emergence of a new feminist movement in Argentina, fuelled by the Ni Una Menos (Not One Woman Less) movement against gender violence, and the National Women’s Strike.

Despite his personal objection to abortion, centre-right President Mauricio Macri has allowed for a congressional debate on a proposed bill that would make Argentina the largest country in Latin America to legalise abortion.

Since mid-April, Congress has held hearings to legalise abortion at up to 14 weeks. Activists, academics, doctors, actors, lawyers and family members of the victims of deadly clandestine abortions have given their testimony in live, nationally broadcast sessions, arguing for and against the measure.

Wearing matching green scarves (pañuelos), thousands of activists from the National Campaign have held massive protests in support of the bill in front of Congress. 

Over the past 15 years, the National Campaign has presented an abortion bill on six different occasions, failing to reach a vote each time.

Although resistance to the proposed legislation exists, especially outside of urban centres, an unusual coalition of political parties from the left, right and centre supports the measure.

If the bill does pass, it would not only grant women the right to abortion, but also become a guaranteed part of their overall right to healthcare under the universalised system, making the procedure free.

Argentina would join Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and certain parts of Mexico as one of the few places offering legal abortions in Latin America.

As it stands, the current law only allows abortion in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life. Several countries in Latin America, including El Salvador and Nicaragua, have a ban on abortion under all circumstances.

Claire Branigan spoke with Sandra Hoyos, an organiser of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortions, for NACLA, from where this is republished in an abridged form. 

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Can you talk about what it is like for women in Argentina to live without access to safe and legal abortion?

In Argentina, a woman may only get an abortion under certain circumstances: when there is a risk to the woman’s life or when the pregnancy was the result of rape. Outside of these exceptions, it is penalised.

In other words, you could face criminal charges for seeking an abortion.

Even if a woman falls into one of these outlined exceptions, it is still very difficult to effectively seek a legal abortion because the health system operates under distinct local criteria and policy. For example, a doctor may have a strong moral objection to abortion and refuse to do the procedure.

In most cases, a woman will seek a clandestine abortion and can (technically) face criminal charges for doing so. In fact, there are cases of women who have spent time in prison, such as the case of Belén, who served two years for having a miscarriage.

According to the National Ministry of Health, 500,000 abortions are performed each year in Argentina. To get an abortion, we are forced into darkness, we have to put our own health and wellbeing at risk, we lose autonomy over our bodies and we cannot freely decide to give birth.

Seeking a clandestine abortion takes place in many different spaces and with the participation of many different organisations — the majority being feminist. Generally, these organisations will accompany women who are seeking an abortion and provide information on how to abort with the lowest risk.

In some cases, these organisations will advise on how to access an abortion in health clinics, or, if not possible, providing strategies on how to abort with Misoprostol [a drug that is prescribed to treat stomach ulcers and can also be used to safely terminate a pregnancy] — the option recommended by the World Health Organisation.

In all cases, women are forced into hiding.

Many people are surprised that this is the moment in which the legalisation of abortion seems like a real possibility, especially under the conservative Macri administration. Why now?

This is an issue that has unified many different feminist movements, because the right to abortion is the right to decide what we do with our bodies and lives. The time for this struggle is now because as feminists, we have put ourselves in charge of making it a part of the public agenda.

But this struggle is not only about abortion, it is also a combination of intersecting demands connected by the struggle for our rights. It is also about the need for legislation against gender violence, the increased visibility of femicide, and the need for comprehensive sexual education.

Without a doubt, the fight for the legalisation of abortion has been strengthened because of these other struggles. This is an issue that has unified many different feminist movements, because the right to abortion is the right to decide what we do with our bodies and lives.

The Argentine feminist movement is the product of the consolidation of many movements. The demand that we are making to the state — the right to abortion — is fundamental because it implies that abortion is part of our [existing] right to health care.

Clandestine abortions are a concern of public health and human rights. In this sense, the state owes us answers and solutions.

A liberal [Macri] government has opened the door to the debate over abortion. This should not surprise us, because liberalism stands for the individual and granting individual rights.

However, the potential for the legalisation of abortion was not a governmental initiative; rather, it was the result of sustained pressure.

The only thing that this government has really accomplished was to force us to unify our struggles and to effectively show our strength. 

Can you talk about the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion?

The National Campaign was founded 13 years ago. However, its formation was rooted in [earlier] local and international movements. 

In 1990, the Latin American Feminist Meeting took place in San Bernardo, Argentina, and designated September 28 as the Day of Struggle for the Legalisation of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean.

It was at this meeting that representatives from each country returned to their homes with a clear objective: form assemblies and commissions for the right to abortion.

From thereon, the organised struggle for the legalisation of abortion had formed and developed in all different kinds of environments, from professional organisations to militant feminist movements. 

Each year in Argentina, we have the National Women’s Meetings. This year will be the 33rd meeting. These meetings have been fundamental in strengthening all of our struggles, and in part because of these meetings, we were all able to commit to the issue of the legalisation of abortion.

In 2005, the National Campaign began growing, and we started to strategise about ways in which we would make the demand for legalisation while also constructing alternatives for women to seek safe abortions.

We have proposed this law multiple times in Congress, and it has not progressed. This year, in the context of so many global feminist struggles, the seventh version of the proposed law is being debated in Congress.

The biggest challenge awaiting us is that the law be approved as it was crafted and written because it is a proposal that was organised from below — from the bottom up.

Beyond the approval of the law, we will be designing strategies to guarantee the implementation of legal abortion, because we know that a law is not a comprehensive solution.

Beyond a mere law, we need to change the practices and subjectivities of people, especially those in healthcare and the justice systems.

We know that there will be many more challenges if this law is passed, but at the same time we will see our feminist militancy strengthened. We are playing a role in the breakdown of the patriarchal structures that we once accepted but that no longer control our lives.

How do you see men play a role in this movement?

I would say that men play a necessary and fundamental role in this struggle, but they do not necessarily occupy the same places as we — women, lesbians and trans people — do.

Men can deconstruct and question their societal privileges. Men need to support feminism. If not, they will not be able to transform themselves and will continue to reproduce machismo.

We encourage men to begin to question themselves and their friends. We want men to abandon their comfortable positions, to look at things from a different angle, and to begin to change.

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