The Senate in Argentina voted 38-29 on Wednesday, December 30, 2020 to approve a bill to legalize abortion. The law legalizes abortion for all cases of pregnancy for up to 14 weeks, which represents a significant shift from the status quo, which only allowed abortion in cases of rape or where the life of the mother is at risk. In other scenarios, it was illegal and punishments could include upwards of 15 years imprisonment.
Executive director of Amnesty International Argentina and also ambassador for She Decides, a global women’s rights organization, Mariela Belski, stated, “Today, Argentina has made an emblematic step forward in defending the rights of women, girls and people with reproductive capacity.” She added that this decision sends “a strong message of hope to our entire continent — that we can change course against the criminalization of abortion and against clandestine abortions, which pose serious risks to the health and lives of millions of people. Both the law passed by the Argentine Congress today and the enormous effort of the women’s movement to achieve this are an inspiration to the Americas, and to the world.”
Argentinian President Alberto Fernández, who had backed the bill, while wearing a tie coloured green, the colour that has become a symbol of the abortion rights movement in Latin America, said “The criminalization of abortion has been of no use” and “has only allowed abortions to occur clandestinely in troubling numbers.”
In Argentina, while there are no official figures available, Fernández stated that since 1983 more than 3,000 have died from illegal abortions. The National Health Ministry estimates that there are between 371,965 and 522,000 abortion procedures being performed annually. Based on a Human Rights Watch report, in 2016 almost 40,000 women and children were hospitalized because of unsafe abortions or miscarriages. That report also found that 39,025 women and girls were admitted to public hospitals as a result of health issues from abortions and miscarriages, with over 6,000 of them being aged 10 to 19.
The abortion debate in Argentina has remained intensive with significant support both in favour and against having abortion legalized in the country. Unlike this attempt at passing legislation, a 2018 attempt to legalize abortion failed under the administration of then Argentinian President Mauricio Macri after passing the lower house but being defeated in the senate. Also unlike in 2018, Argentina’s president was supportive of abortion legalization as he came into power in December 2019. On the topic, Fernández has said, “The debate is not saying yes or no to abortion.” “The dilemma that we must overcome is whether abortions are performed clandestinely or in the Argentine health system.” He reacted to the approval of the bill with “Safe, legal and free abortion is law. Today we are a better society that broadens rights for women and guarantees public health.”
A member of the ruling left-wing coalition in Argentina, Monica Macha, said on Twitter “We did it sisters. We made history. We did it together. There are no words for this moment, it passes through the body and the soul.”
Argentina is also the birthplace of Catholic Church leader Pope Francis. Pope Francis has supported the work of an anti-abortion group and spoken out against abortion in the country in a handwritten letter. In a tweet sent out prior to the debate in the Senate, he said: “The son of God was born discarded to tell us that every person discarded is a child of God.” The Church of Argentina had called on Argentina’s Senate to vote against the abortion bill. While Argentina is known to be a deeply religious country, a 2019 study from the National Scientific and Technical Research Council found that the percentage of the population identifying as Catholic dropped 13.6 per cent since 2008 to 62.9 per cent. Evangelicals grew but the proportion of the population not identifying as having a religion had the largest percentage growth, now making up almost 20 per cent of the population. 46.2 per cent of the population agrees that religion should not be a part of public school education, which is a 19 percentage point increase from 2008.
Juan Pappier, a senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch, said “Adopting a law that legalizes abortion in a Catholic country as big as Argentina will energize the struggle to ensure women’s rights in Latin America.” He added, “Although there will certainly be resistance, I think it’s fair to predict that, as it occurred when Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, this new law could have a domino effect in the region.”
The legalization of abortion in Argentina, which becomes the most populous country to legalize it in Latin America, represents an important step forward for the fight for reproductive rights globally and in the region, where religious and political opposition remains a major barrier to opening up access to legal and accessible abortion services. The work of regional social movements is reflected in this major legislative victory, which comes not long after an earlier attempt to legalize abortion failed in Argentina’s Senate. This provides a template for movements in other countries, which have similar structural barriers and which have also undergone shifts in public attitudes, to continue to push for reproductive rights.