“Nothing will stop us now!” These were the words of the excited and emotional activists when Argentina’s parliament voted narrowly (129 votes to 125) to decriminalise abortion. The National Congress in Buenos Aires was surrounded by women wearing green scarves around their necks, heads and wrists. Since 2005 this has been the symbol of their campaign. It represents life and hope and evokes memories of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo – a group of women whose children disappeared under the dictatorship in Argentina during the 1970s and 1980s.
It was in fact the president, Mauricio Macri, leader of a centre-right government who, under the pressure of feminist and social activists, suggested opening the abortion debate in his inaugural speech to parliament. Despite pressure from religious groups, he had to recognise that there was an increasing social awareness about abortion. Feminist groups were showing politicians that women and society were ready for a change.
Under the current regulations, women cannot have a legal abortion in Argentina. Exceptions are only very rarely considered in the case of rape or risk to the health of the woman. Even then, the ultimate decision lies with health professionals – and they can refuse to perform a procedure on the grounds of religious belief. Every year, hundreds of pregnant women die in Argentina because abortion is criminalised.
Clandestine abortion is the main cause of maternal mortality. According to the Ministry of Health in Argentina, there are 500,000 illegal interventions per year. In 2016, there were 245 maternal deaths, 43 of which were produced by illegal abortions. This was an urgent public health matter. Criminalising abortion has not stopped abortions from taking place. It has only increased the risk of self-harm and death.
Women spoke, parliament listened
This vote was preceded by weeks of discussions and presentations from experts, activists, politicians and the public to parliamentarians so that they could make an informed decision. The representatives went on to have hours of intense debate before passing the new law. This will legalise elective abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and in longer periods in situations that entail health risks to the pregnant person or in the case of rape.
There have been six previous attempts at passing this legislation. This time, the campaign group presented a petition to parliament, gathering signatures from 71 MPs from different political affiliations – enough to ensure that the matter would be debated in parliament.
But the real victory belongs to the massive push from women’s rights activists. They organised and rallied against “femicide” (femicidio) in demonstrations, celebrations and speeches. Like an unstoppable green tide, women’s presence in the streets began to take shape and volume. They became a collective voice that could not be stopped. In a short period of time, the activists turned abortion into a national issue. Women became the main protagonists of their own destiny rather than having to submit to the judgement of the Catholic Church. and religious groups when it comes to their reproductive rights.
The three clear goals of the campaign were reasonable and inspirational. As a counter to the old-fashioned fundamentalism of right-wing religious groups, which make obsolete patriarchal arguments about women’s roles, the campaign argued that women should receive sexual education to help them decide on their own reproductive health – which is crucial for young people to be able to understand their bodies. It also called for contraceptives to be made more readily available to avoid abortion in the first place and for abortion to be a possibility when the other two fail.
In addition to the campaign, four marches organised by the feminist group Not One Less (Ni Una Menos) were of paramount importance. Ni una Menos argues that the criminalisation of abortion must be seen as part of the broader violence against women that has recently increased, together with rape, abduction, sexual, psychological and economic abuse. These are young and strong feminists who enlivened the campaign.
The green tide
There are no words to describe the joy that the success of this long-term campaign has brought to activists and to women in general. The law has not been approved yet – it must now be discussed and approved by the senate. But, for now at least, the criminalisation of abortion looks to be a thing of the past.
As María Alicia Gutiérrez, a leader of the National Campaign for Legal Abortion and researcher on reproductive health at the University of Buenos Aires, emphasised in her presentation during the parliamentary debate, this is a collective right that responds to the broader demand for reproductive justice. The campaign has achieved the “social” decriminalisation of abortion, even if it has not yet become law.
The Senate might reject the new law but can’t turn back the green tide. June 13 and 14 2018 will forever be celebrated as historic days for the feminist movement in Argentina. The feminist struggle crosses all kinds of issues – in fact, the campaign has worked closely with gender diversity groups so that the beneficiary of this legislation would not only be women but “all people with the ability to procreate”. This is in line with the principles of the Argentine Gender Identity Law, which would allow a trans-man to be able to have an abortion.
The feminist critique is becoming stronger and more powerful. Global feminism is the only movement fighting simultaneously against patriarchy, heterosexuality, racial discrimination, capitalism and colonialism. To make this vote happen in Argentina, violence against women was confronted by women in defence of life and their rights. Their chants have worked. They have secured legal abortion and the right not to die: Aborto legal para no morir ya!