Argentine feminists suffered a setback in 2018 when a plan to decriminalize abortion was narrowly rejected in the Senate. Now they are hoping to gain support for a similar bill this week in the more conservative upper house after winning a crucial ally: Peronist Vice President – and Senate Speaker – Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Ms Fernández de Kirchner had opposed the legalization of abortion during her own presidency. But in 2018, under the center-right administration of Mauricio Macri, she said she had changed her mind after seeing “the thousands and thousands of girls coming together [in] the streets. ”On December 29, the ruling duo she now forms with President Alberto Fernández will attempt to push the abortion bill past the Senate hurdle.
If successful, Argentina would go down in history as the most populous country in Latin America to pass such national legislation. In Brazil, abortion is a crime, although it is tolerated if the pregnancy is the result of rape, if the mother’s life is in danger, or if the fetus has a severe brain defect. In Mexico, two states legalized it in the first quarter. El Salvador women can spend up to 40 years in prison charged with murder for terminating pregnancy or miscarriage.
“This is all part of a larger process that includes women’s suffrage, shared custody of children, reproductive health, sexual minority rights, gender quotas and more,” said Vilma Ibarra, secretary Argentine in charge of the bill and adviser to Mr. Fernández in legislative matters. “These demands came with strong momentum from civil society, but it took a government behind them to make them a reality.”
Two weeks ago, members of the Argentine Chamber of Deputies passed the bill, which would allow termination of pregnancy in the first 14 weeks, by 131 votes to 117 – a wider margin than the 129-125 in 2018. But even with Ms Fernández de Kirchner wielding more influence as head of the Senate, it’s unclear whether the legislation will win enough hands up to reverse the 37-31 defeat of 2018.
The Peronist government has sought to convince its more conservative senators to change their position on the issue, or at least to abstain. The opposition, meanwhile, is reluctant to allow pro-choice activists in their ranks to give the government a political victory. Estimates suggest a tie, with the possibility of a decisive vote on Ms Fernández de Kirchner.
The law would cap decades-long feminist activism in a country where Catholic traditions remain rooted. A milestone in this campaign was the creation of the National Campaign for the Right to a Legal, Safe and Free Abortion in 2005, which brought together dispersed activist groups.
“We knew we had to get society to decriminalize abortion first, that we had to build a broad social consensus,” Celeste Mac Dougall, one of the group’s key members, told the Financial Times. “It’s a lot of invisible work that changed the way people think about the problem.”
Activists like Ms. Mac Dougall have built networks of health professionals supporting women’s choice over abortion; they organized street rallies and cultural events and campaigned for the release of women sentenced to prison for terminating their pregnancies. They also lobbied to include sex education content in school.
Support for the right to abort “whenever a woman chooses” doubled between 2008 and 2019, from 14% to 27% of the population, according to the report. National survey of religious beliefs and attitudes, the largest of its kind in Argentina. Meanwhile, supporters of the total ban have hardly changed at 19%.
Religion is an important factor in the debate: Opponents of the right to abortion are found among Catholics – a majority in the country – and evangelicals, a growing and active minority. But one in five Argentines say they are a non-believer, and while opposition to abortion tends to win when pollsters ask binary yes or no questions, a majority say they would support legalization in some cases.
In 2018, feminist protests prompted Mr Macri to give the green light to introduce legislation, but he said he was personally opposed. Evangelical and Catholic organizations mobilized and with the help of senators from the more conservative provinces of the North and West, the bill was overturned.
The debate had political consequences for Mr Macri. The right has exploded, Juan José Gómez Centurión even having launched a rival presidential candidacy in 2019 after years of working with Mr. Macri. His running mate Cynthia Hotton was one of the leading anti-abortion activists.
Currently touring the country to stop the bill, Ms Hotton insisted in an interview with the FT that Argentina’s people are predominantly Christian and anti-abortion. “Whatever the result of the vote, it will not end up paying dividends to the government,” she warned.
Additional reporting by Jude Webber in Mexico and Michael Pooler in Sao Paulo