In the past week, legislation that seeks to allow “women or other identities with the ability to gestate” to have access to safe and legal abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy was introduced to the National Congress of Argentina. This new legislation seeks to decriminalize pregnancy termination and prevent the conscientious objection of a medical practitioner. Abortions in Argentina are currently only legal if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s health or in the instance of rape, a policy enacted in 1921. The bill was circulated amongst legal, medical, and political experts before giving grassroots activists a chance to comment. Al Jazeera reports the bill was voted on by feminist representatives in March and the county might be the “most populous country to legalize abortion in Latin America, a region with strict anti-abortion rights laws rooted in Catholic doctrine.”
The introduction of the bill coincided with the International Day of Action for Women’s Health. Since then, abortion in Argentina has gained international attention at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival where actors, including Penelope Cruz, held up green handkerchiefs that symbolize the abortion movement.
Despite abortion only being allowed in extreme cases the Argentinian health minister estimates that more than 350,000 clandestine abortions are carried out each year, while human rights groups estimate the number to be as high as a half million. Thousands of women are hospitalized due to complications from clandestine abortions, and poor women are at especially high risk. “After last year’s rejection, it’s evident that abortion continues to be practiced in terrible conditions and women continue to die…,” said Amnesty International Argentina director Mariela Belski.“The state must settle its debt and provide abortion services without improper restrictions, discrimination and punishment.”
Unlike last year’s legislation that passed in the lower House of Deputies but failed in the Senate, this bill has an amendment focused on preventing women from reaching the point where they need an abortion, through provision of sexual education and counselling. It also sets prison terms for health establishments or doctors who “unjustifiably delay,” block or refuse to carry out an elective abortion within the terms of the law, and longer prison terms if that action leads to damage to a woman’s health or causes her death.
Conservative President Mauricio Macri last year agreed to sign the abortion bill into law if it passed both houses of Congress, but since the bill failed in the Senate, it did not land on the president’s desk.
In recent years, Argentina has become more progressive. In 2010, It was the first Latin American state to legalize same-sex marriage, five years before the U.S.. Further, The now internationally recognized movement, Ni Una Menos, began in Argentina as a grassroots feminist movement with campaigns against gender-based violence.
However, efforts to change abortion restrictions repeatedly emerge across Latin America and the Caribbean as socially conservative countries grapple with shifting views on once taboo issues and the church continues to lose influence to secularism and a crisis of confidence after an avalanche of clerical sex abuse scandals, according to NBC. The majority stance on the issue remains unclear. Argentina is the home country of Pope Francis, and last year he denounced abortion as a “white glove” equal to that of Nazi-era eugenics programs.
Argentina is 92% Roman Catholic, though only about 20% of the population practices their faith regularly. In an era where the Catholic church is quickly losing influence and respect, religious objections to abortion are becoming seen as a last ditch effort of a male-dominated religion to exert power over women. If this bill passes, Argentina is making steps in the right direction in allowing legal and safe abortions into the second trimester. However, even if the bill passes, not all lives of women who seek abortions will be safe. Though clandestine abortions are dangerous for all women, poor women are at a much higher risk of side effects and hospitalization than more affluent women. A 53-page report published by the Human Rights Watch details the most common barriers to care include long delays in providing services, unnecessary referrals to other clinics, demands for spousal permission contrary to law, financial barriers, and in some cases outright denial of care. The proposed bill may pass and allow women much more control over their reproductive health, but until the system for receiving care is addressed and fixed, the war for women’s healthcare is not over.
If the proposed bill passes it will allow women to obtain abortions during the first 14-weeks of pregnancy, decriminalize the practice of terminating a pregnancy, prevent healthcare providers from claiming conscientious objection, and expand the sex education system. The fight for women’s rights, reproductive rights, and women’s healthcare is a global fight. This bill is a defining step for the countries of Latin America and the rest of the world in the way women’s rights are addressed.