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#Aborto Legal Ya: Abortion Activism in Argentina

Over the last year, our conversations about abortion access and laws at an international level have focused on the damaging effects of the Global Gag Rule. Also known as the Mexico City Policy, this regulation was reinstated by President Trump early in his first term, after having been rescinded by President Obama in 2009. These are, of course, critically important conversations, as regulations such as the Global Gag Rule have prevented NGOs from distributing life-saving information about reproductive health care to women all around the world. But it’s also important to talk about cases where we’re making progress, which is what I want to share with you today.

Like many other Latin American countries, Argentina is a predominantly Catholic country, and even though its constitution guarantees the separation of church and state, Catholic Church officials are frequently involved in political affairs. This influence has undoubtedly had an effect on national reproductive rights policy—but perhaps not in the way that you think. When I attended a Catholic school in Argentina in 2007, sexual education was surprisingly comprehensive, particularly in comparison to the United States. Teens in my high school in the Patagonian province of Río Negro knew that the morning after pill was available over the counter at pharmacies, at fairly reasonable prices. Birth control pills could also easily be purchased without a prescription, if you were willing to have a short chat with a pharmacist. Many public hospitals and health centers offered birth control pills, morning after pills, and condoms free of charge. In short, really impressive! Except for the one option that wasn’t discussed: abortion.

Legally speaking, Argentina allows abortion in cases of danger to the mother’s life, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. Practically, the application of this policy depends on the views (in some cases one might say whims) of the court system, and has predictably disastrous results. Abortion activists in Argentina claim that access to abortion is relatively easy for wealthy, urban patients, but people from poorer and more rural backgrounds are barely able to access even the most basic information about abortion. This, in turn, leads to unsafe clandestine abortion procedures. Some of the most recent figures report that about 80,000 patients per year are hospitalized due to post-abortion complications—and then face legal punishment on top of this. A study conducted by the Argentine Ministry of Health suggested that for every woman who seeks medical attention due to abortion complications, seven others do not. Major news cases have shown that when pregnant Argentineans do attempt to petition for access to a legal abortion, the process is mired with delays and setbacks, leading to painful, inhumane results. More than 3,000 Argentine women have lost their lives due to unsafe abortions since the early 80s.

It’s a bleak picture, and it weighed heavily on my mind as I traveled back to Argentina in late January to conduct research for my Ph.D thesis. Just over two weeks into my stay, I was privileged to witness a massive demonstration of just how far Argentineans have come in the fight to secure this right.

On Monday, February 19th of this year, thousands of Argentine women marched on the country’s congressional building with a loud, clear statement: “Aborto Legal, Seguro, Y Gratuito”. In English: Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion. This incredible demonstration was carried out to show support for the National Congress to open debate on a draft of a law that would not only legalize abortion, but provide it free of charge in all national health clinics.

Figure 1. “Pañuelazo”, February 19th, 2018, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Soyyosoycocomiel under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 Internatinoal license.

March 8th marked International Women’s Day, and the movement for access to legal abortion in Argentina had an even bigger showing of public support. Estimates say that hundreds of thousands of people turned out to march from the Casa Rosada in Plaza de Mayo, seat of the Argentine Executive Branch, to the Congressional Building. Hundreds of progressive, feminist organizations turned out to give voice to the diverse, pluralistic needs, interests, and demands of the Argentine people. Throughout the crowd, though, one color proved to be a clear uniting factor among these groups.

Figure 2. Poster calling for legal abortion activists to attend the March 8th protest for International Women's Day. Photo by author.

The campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion in Argentina uses green bandanas (pañuelos in Spanish) to identify their cause precisely because the color isn’t tied to any particular political party or denomination. In other words, abortion access is important to all kinds of Argentineans. In 2011 a study reported that 45% of all Argentineans believed that abortion should be legal within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The increasingly open public conversation about abortion I’ve witnessed in the past two months of living here tells me that number has most definitely increased in the last 7 years. I’ve been thrilled to see men, women, younger people and older folks, and people of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds sporting their green pañuelos with pride ever since the march.

Figure 3. Women and allies march on the Argentine Congress building, May 8th 2018, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Livia Garofalo

Argentina still has a long way to go toward making abortion “legal, safe, and free”, but the efforts of the pro-choice movement here are energizing and exciting. Thanks to the pressure and work of these activists, the lower house of the Argentine congress voted in favor of decriminalizing abortion on June 14th—the first time in history such a bill has made it so far through the country’s legislative system. An upper house debate and vote is still pending, but the work of Argentina’s pro-choice activists reminds us that the fight for reproductive rights is important, necessary, and that it pays off.


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