Hundreds of thousands of people calling for legal, safe and free abortion on demand in Argentina showed their outrage on August 9 when they gathered in the early morning in the pouring rain after the Senate voted down a bill that would have both decriminalized abortion and allowed free access to the procedure in public and private hospitals.
Despite this disappointing blow to reproductive rights, the headway made in Latin America to legalize safe and accessible abortion — dubbed the “green tide” after the bandannas worn by women’s rights activists around the continent — will be invaluable to future struggles.
The Senate vote against the bill came a few months after the lower house of Congress voted in favor by a 129-to-125 margin—and after years of campaigning for the issue, led largely by Ni Una Menos, a grassroots anti gender-based violence movement.
The bill is known as “ley de interrupción voluntaria del embarazo” — IVE or “law of voluntary interruption of pregnancy.”
Although IVE had flaws, such as mandating a five-day waiting period for procedures and limiting abortions to the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, it would have been a major victory not only for women’s rights groups who championed it, but Argentina as a whole.
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Under the current law, those seeking abortions can be charged and imprisoned unless they can prove that the fetus poses a danger to their life or that the pregnancy is the result of sexual assault.
Those who seek abortions under these terms are constantly scrutinized about what qualifies as enough risk to their lives, and survivors of sexual assault often find it difficult to prove what happened to them. The burden of providing this evidence means that even people who meet the draconian qualifications of the current law are often forced to carry pregnancies to term.
It also means that people risk their lives and undergo unsafe abortion procedures. Orlando James Jenkinson writing in the New Internationalist, cited statistics showing that “the vast majority of abortions (95 percent for Latin America as a whole) are performed underground, illegally and at the risk of physical harm or prosecution.”
The impact of the continuation of Argentina’s abortion ban was felt almost immediately, when a 24-year-old women went to the hospital with septic shock as a result of a botched abortion—and died a week after the Senate decision.
According to a recent study, abortion-related deaths in countries with more restrictive abortion laws are 34 times greater than in countries with less restrictive laws.
In Latin America, only three countries — Cuba, Guyana and Uruguay — have legalized abortion. Most other Latin American countries have some restrictions on the procedure, limiting abortion to cases of threats to the pregnant person’s life and sexual assault. Six countries — the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname — currently prohibit abortion altogether.
Even in countries that have decriminalized abortion, as Colombia did in 2006, women continue to seek abortions clandestinely. Reproductive rights activists worldwide must continue the fight for proper medical training and accessibility to the procedure long after the battle for legalization is won.
In the US, for example, abortion rights activists have to defend clinics against anti-choicers emboldened by Trump’s sexist policies. And now, with the possible confirmation of anti-choice Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the right to legal abortion may be at stake, which would once again condemn those seeking abortions to forced births or back-alley abortions.
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In addition to the violence of unsafe abortions, Argentina suffers from a high rate of femicide — 2,679 registered in the past 10 years and increasing since 2014 — many of which are related to inaccessibility to legal, safe and free abortion on demand.
In 2015, 14-year-old Chiara Paez was murdered by her 16-year-old boyfriend and his mother for getting pregnant. Paez’s femicide sparked public outrage, drawing some 200,000 people to the streets in protest of gender-based violence.
In her hometown of Rufino, northeast of Buenos Aires, 7,000 people attended a vigil for Paez, holding signs that read “Rufino is mourning” and “Ni Una Menos,” the slogan that launched the movement.
Described as a “collective cry against machista violence,” Ni Una Menos has been involved regularly in mass mobilizations against femicide.
Since 2015, #NiUnaMenos marches have been held across Latin America. The movement’s platform encompasses not only the legal right to abortion, but also the “economic conditions and health care that will allow us to decide whether we wish to be mothers.” LGBTQ+ rights, indigenous rights and a stand against neoliberalism and capitalism are also demands within the movement.
The Washington Post recently claimed that reproductive rights activists “piggybacked” on the Ni Una Menos movement, but the reality is that access to abortion is central to ending gender-based violence.
The pervasiveness of femicide in Argentina and around the world is one manifestation of the lack of reproductive rights for women. By denying women reproductive autonomy, legislators have essentially endorsed our abuse at the hands of powerful men.
In fact, not only are legislators too often powerful men who are also abusers — a fact made evident by the #MeToo movement — but their hostile stances on reproductive rights directly cause further HARM in women’s lives.
Anti-abortion legislation itself is all too often a vehicle to further austerity measures, and the call for free abortion on demand can also emphasize greater struggles relating to health care for all. In the US, for example, roughly 50 percent of trans people—mostly trans people of color—delay or avoid necessary medical care due to inaccessibility, simply because their gender doesn’t qualify for a treatment they need.
In other words, gains for the entire working class flow naturally from abortion rights, and politicians know they can keep austerity measures in place if they continue to deny this basic human right.
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So how was a bill supported by a majority of Argentines defeated?
Part of the answer is the countermobilization led by the Catholic Church, begun right after IVE passed the lower house of Congress. Pope Francis, an Argentine himself, led this effort by outrageously comparing abortion to Nazi-era eugenics and by personally requesting anti-abortion legislators to lobby their Senate colleagues to reject the bill.
Evangelical forces, which hold tremendous influence on Argentine politics and thus felt no need to mobilize against the popular movement, were shocked when a sea of over 1 million green handkerchiefs flooded the streetsaround Congress after the victory in June.
The Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches in Argentina scrambled to call an anti-choice demonstration the day before the Senate vote, where anti-choicers were to mobilize wearing, blue handkerchiefs under the fallacious slogan “Salvemos las dos vidas,” or “Let’s save both lives.”
Still, with the remarkable popular support for the bill, evangelical forces alone couldn’t have been enough to deliver this setback to reproductive rights activists. The undemocratic nature of Argentina’s legislative bodies is also to blame.
The Argentine Senate is composed of three legislators for each province, and three for the autonomous city of Buenos Aires. This is a stark, undemocratic contrast to the Chamber of Deputies, in which the number of members per district is proportional to population.
This gives unequal weight to legislators like Gabriela Michetti, who is also president of the Senate, vice president and staunchly anti-choice, even in the case of sexual assault.
Had IVE passed the Senate, Argentine President Mauricio Macri, though opposed to abortion, promised he wouldn’t veto the decision. This is largely due to the popular resentment he is already facing as a result of his neoliberal policies, including attacks on the country’s pension system and those who protested against it, arbitrary mass firings of public employees and, most recently, a three-year credit line with the International Monetary Fund worth $50 billion.
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This was the repressive political climate in which IVE was defeated. But this makes the mass mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people for legal, safe and free abortion on demand even more remarkable.
This movement in Argentina is one part of a global women’s movement that won’t go back to the shadows. The explosion of the #MeToo movement in the US last fall empowered women to speak up as victims of gender-based violence.
In Ireland, thousands rallied in the streets this May in celebration of a referendum that repealed a constitutional amendment, thus legalizing abortion. In Spain, a 5 million-strong general strike on International Women’s Day was a specifically feminist response to the neoliberal crisis.
This worldwide women’s movement is having a snowball effect, both in size and militancy.
The campaign for IVE brought the struggle for reproductive justice into the public sphere for the first time in Argentina. At the same time, the movement radicalized and raised the consciousness of millions of people, mostly young and many who had no previous experience engaging in politics.
Additionally, this network of an organized reproductive rights movement can take lessons from its defeats and keep building public pressure—as this is the only way to ensure our victory. In the wake of this defeat, a more organized, militant movement with greater numbers than before now exists to fight until reproductive justice is achieved for all.