Argentina: the feminist breakthrough of the year – abortion is legalized

The green tide made abortion law and enshrined a right that is a historic demand of the women's movement.

The weather was oppressive, there was a storm threat, but even if it rained torrentially like 8 August 2018, the vote in the Senate would not be the same. “We came back to be better” is the slogan of the government of Alberto Fernández and it seems that this also applied to the campaign promise to introduce legal abortion, which had 38 votes in favour, 29 against and one abstention in the Senate vote on 29 December 2020. In the case of the feminist movement, “we came back” was synonymous with growing up, not returning, because it never left the plaza as a public space par excellence to demand the rights of the people denied, of those treated as second-class citizens, until this Tuesday.

Behind the 29D vote, there lie 15 years of the Campaña Nacional por el Aborto Legal Seguro y Gratuito (National Campaign for Safe and Free Legal Abortion) in Argentina, with the growth of networks such as the socorristas, who advise and support abortions throughout the country, and  the Red de Profesionales de la Salud por el Derecho a Decidir (Network of Health Professionals for the Right to Decide), who understand that a safe abortion is a matter of public health, guaranteeing rights and complying with the Hippocratic Oath. Behind the 29D vote is the Red de Docentes por el Derecho al Aborto (Network of Teachers for the Right to Abortion) who understand that abortion is part of theEducación Sexual Integral (ESI - Comprehensive Sexual Education) that every girl and boy should receive. And there are the girls with glitter and the sister-legislators and feminist journalists. All together for this common cause of guaranteeing the right to abortion as part of the right to enjoyment of a life worth living.

Politics without a body is bureaucracy. In the days leading up to the green vote (green being the colour associated with the pro-abortion rights movement, as against blue for their opponents) there was a lot of realpolitik. Meetings with President Fernández travelling to convince the undecided in different provinces, young senators and their advisers giving their all for a cross-sectional debate, but above all girls and pioneers filling streets and plazas again to combat indifference.

Why is a legislative vote followed like this, as if it were a World Cup? The transmission of the parliamentary debate was followed by six giant screens outside the Congress in Buenos Aires: three screens for the green sector, the others for the anti-rights sectors. In 60 other towns in the country, thousands and thousands were, on a clear moonlit night, making up for a whole year  of social distancing. There were fears of an “unstable and disconcerting” parity, as defined by Marta Alanís, from Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir, (Catholics for the Right to Choose), hours before the vote. But at 4.12 the result was green hope.

A regional wave

The approval has a multiplier flavour in the region. Until this Tuesday, Latin America and the Caribbean had six countries where abortion on demand is legal  during the first weeks of pregnancy, according to the term established by each law: Uruguay, Cuba, Guiana, French Guyana, Puerto Rico and Mexico (in Mexico City and Oaxaca). With Argentina there are now seven.

With “alert persistence” as the Cordovan writer Tununa Mercado puts it, popular feminisms in Argentina “managed to bring abortion out of the closet once and for all, they built a broad consensus and collective awareness of the right to choose,” says journalist Florencia Alcaraz in her book ¡Que sea ley! (“Let it be law!” Marea, 2018), and “they expanded the imaginary of the region around the possible legislation on abortion”.

From El Salvador, a Central American country where this right is totally criminalized, with dozens of women imprisoned for having abortions, Laura Aguirre - director of the digital medium Alharaca - says that this Argentine achievement is a “boost” and “a reminder that, although the road is long and difficult, it can be reached with patience, with sisterhood, with struggle, with support among ourselves”. Tica Moreno, from the Brazilian Women’s March, described this victory as an advance for all internationalist feminists, although it is not easy: “It takes a lot of organization, popular education, mobilization, commitment, daring, dialogue, rebellion, symbolism, hubbub, bodies in movement and collective struggle against the reactionary, neoliberal and heteropatriarchal offensive in the region ”.

From the halls of the Senate that echo her voice, Senator Alanís says that “a domino effect” of laws in favour of legal abortion in Latin America cannot be projected, but “we have made so much green noise that this advanced law is going to impact according to the political framework of the countries. In the midst of a region where the right wants to impose its agenda, each movement, in each country, has to create conditions so that it is possible that it will be legalized”.

The political duty to rise to the occasion

At 16:08 the debate began in the upper house, with 34 out of 72 senators present in the chamber or their offices; two absent (José Alperovich on leave for allegations of raping his niece and former president Carlos Menem, hospitalized with an induced coma) and the rest meeting virtually from their provinces; 59 listed as speakers, six of whom were listed as “undecided” in their votes. In the end, 58 of them spoke. In addition to feminist vigils, thousands followed the proceedings on the Senate YouTube channel (with peaks of 51,400 viewers) and thousands more the broadcasts made by radios, newspapers and television channels. 12 hours later, the regulation of access to voluntary interruption of pregnancy up to the fourteenth week and post-abortion care was law.

At the opening of the session it was known that there would be a partial presidential veto agreement and modification in the regulation of the law in the reference to “integral” health in the causes of the legal interruptions of pregnancy, not in the text of the draft (so the 14-week term for abortion does not change), thus avoiding it  being discussed again in Chamber of Deputies. The text would veto the term “integral”, would maintain the causes as up to now and the regulations would state that “the danger to life or health must be evaluated and established by the health personnel involved”, according to the draft document previously available. Some of this content was also shared by Senator Alberto Weretilneck in his presentation, around 2.15 in the morning. This agreement persuaded him and others who were “undecided” to vote in favour of legal abortion.

As the hours passed, access to abortion as an urgent public health problem was reinforced among the undecided, recognizing, on the basis of respect for autonomy in decisions, that keeping it clandestine does not stop the practice but only deepens the risk to life and criminalization. This is how Silvina Larraburu (Frente de Todos, FDT), Stella Maris Olalla (Juntos por el Cambio) and Sergio Leavy (FDT) advanced their affirmative and “deconstructed” vote. The detail of positions in favour and against is in the report on the parliamentary debate published this Tuesday. A synthesis of the changes in favour was the statement by Lucila Crexell (Interbloque Federal) from Neuquén, who in 2018 had abstained from voting: “I did not change my position, I changed my approach: clandestine abortion is a silent cause that many still refuse to see. I am not indifferent to this drama. This law does not change at all those who are opposed, but it does change for those who need the state to assist them.” After 10:30 p.m., the vote totalled 37 votes in favour, 32 against, two abstentions and one undecided. A game that was in play until the last minute.

Ana Almirón (FDT), who travelled ten hours by car to reach the Senate from Corrientes, described the debate as a “beautiful and transversal” moment and gave one of the speeches most celebrated on social networks. Criticizing her province, declared “pro-life” in 2011, she recalled that there is no “young vote, that is, we do not authorize 16-year-old girls to vote, but we do force them to give birth at 10, 11, 12 years. That is simply the idea of ​​the woman as incubator. 18% of live births in my province are to children under 18 years of age. Are we going to let them have an abortion, or are we going to accompany them to the police station or the morgue?” she asked her comrades of the bloc, raising her green handkerchief with the slogan “Girls, not mothers ”. The north-eastern Argentine provinces are the ones with the highest child and adolescent maternal fertility rates in the country: they coincide with the map of the greatest structural poverty.

Another strong argument in favour, which could advance the discussion to separate  Church and State, was that of Gladys González (Propuesta Republican) that a religious doctrine cannot be imposed: “Isn't it time to understand why our women who believe in God abort? … We have come late to understand the importance of sexual education, the use of contraceptives. Punishment and guilt only bring more pain and death”.

The green handkerchief, an infinite code that crosses borders and traces a genealogy of struggles with mothers and grandmothers, an open password on wrists, collars, pins, ties, was worn all day. Senator María Eugenia Duré (FDT), from Patagonia, had on her desk, like other millennial legislators, a cloth triangle that said “Legal, free and feminist abortion”. Behind this emblem she recalled: “Women do not ask permission to make history. We  try simply to be at the level of the expansion of rights. This project comes to restore dignity to women and pregnant women.”

“Because, even criminalized, it always existed. The question is to guarantee fewer complications, more health, more life” said Roberto Mirabella, from Santa Fe, arguing in favour from his home. In the last hours he had been pressured, even with visits from bishops at his home in Rafaela. He was not an exception: Matías Rodríguez, another senator from  Patagonia,  expressed solidarity with colleagues who received intimidation from “fanatics”.

The law’s opponents threatened, bored and delayed with disrespectful, lying and discriminatory arguments, such as saying that children with Down’s syndrome will be aborted or that “the draft says nothing about the unborn child”; “We cannot save the mistakes that others made”; “What will a foetus of week 13 think if it crosses the border from one country to another”; even alluding to situations in the year 500 BC or the English drought of 1315, as did FDT senator Dalmacio Mera, from Catamarca

At 1.15 some journalists announced that there were 38 votes in favour. The 2018 result was reversed. A debt of democracy has begun to be paid off: 3,040 women died from unsafe abortions between 1983 and 2016. To those who doubt this figure, María Inés Pilatti (FDT) from Chaco asked: “They remind me of those who doubt there are 30,000 [disappeared under the dictatorship].”

What comes next

Conscientious objection and institutional ideology, something that in Uruguay has clearly been diagnosed as the main challenge in eight years of implementation of the abortion law, are among the obstacles that “we are going to have to tear down” said Alanís. “We have a very big job ahead of us”, she acknowledged, but with advanced social decriminalization, with the green tide “intact and firm for whatever comes”, such as the lawsuits that anti-abortion Silvia Elías de Pérez promised to present before the Supreme Court . It seems that the senator wants to deepen the existing penalty: since 2012, 1,532 causes of abortion and 37 possible obstetric events have been criminalized in 17 provinces, according to an investigation by the Centre for Legal and Social Studies.

In other places, socorristas met with those they had helped. One said: “When the vote was taken, I was stunned for a while. After a few minutes it came to me like a parade of faces to my mind, of situations that I was present at, of others that changed my head and my life. And then yes, I could not stop crying. As rational and critical as I can be of the law, the strongest thing was that feeling that this was justice, a little reparation.”

Activists exposed for years in conservative towns have been receiving congratulations from different latitudes. Each message is a hug. “All my life fighting for this and it happens. It is very overwhelming and it is at the same time something of justice, beauty and love on our side,” says Dahiana Belfiori, author of “Code Pink, Abortion Stories”.

The political weight of what we have achieved is enormously moving.

31 December 2020

Translated from La Diaria (Uruguay)


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