Argentinian President Alberto Fernández announced in the National Congress on Sunday, March 1 2020, that he will be backing a bill that seeks to legalize abortion in Argentina. The Argentine government has estimated that about 350,000 illegal abortions take place annually, with human rights groups estimating an even higher, 500,000. The details of the proposed bill, including the latest stage during which pregnancy can be terminated, is not currently known. A prior bill to legalize abortion was defeated in August 2018.
Fernández, referring to the current abortion laws in Argentina, said “It has condemned many women, generally of limited resources, to resort to abortive practices in absolute secrecy, putting their health and sometimes their lives at risk… A state that is present must protect citizens in general and obviously women in particular. And in the 21st century, every society needs to respect an individual’s decision to make choices over their own bodies… That is why, within the next 10 days, I will present a bill for the voluntary interruption of pregnancy that legalizes abortion at the initial time of pregnancy and allows women to access the health system when they make the decision to abort… It is clear that there are many women who do not feel constrained by the foreseen penalties against abortion and who seek them out to end their pregnancies.”
Director of Amnesty International in Argentina, Mariela Belski, said “It is clear that the president heard the demands of women, adolescents and girls, and that he has the conviction that Argentina is ready for this bill.”
If the bill is approved, this would make Argentina, a country of about 45 million, the largest in Latin America to legalize abortion. It has been legal in Uruguay since 2012, in Cuba since 1965, and in Guyana since 1995. It is also legal in parts of Mexico. The practice is highly restricted across Latin America; the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua completely prohibit the practice, with no exceptions. In Argentina, it is illegal except for instances of rape, or where pregnancy places the mother at risk.
A bill to legalize abortion, within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, was passed narrowly in the Chamber of Deputies, but it was later rejected in the Senate, in August 2018, by 38 votes to 31. That bill faced significant opposition from the Catholic Church, and then President Mauricio Macri did not endorse it. The move to back this bill by Fernández follows a promise he made as president-elect, after his victory in the October 2019 Argentine election, where he defeated the incumbent Macri.
Amnesty International has estimated that the current vote, in the Chamber of Deputies, stands at 116 favouring legalization, 108 against, and 33 unallocated votes. In the Senate, the estimate is 33 votes in favour, with 33 against, three undecided, and one member on leave. These numbers indicate that it remains a contentious issue and the passage of the bill is not a certainty.
Alongside the legislative efforts is an activist movement. Green flags and handkerchiefs have become a symbol of the movement to legalize abortion across various Latin American countries. Activists welcomed Fernández’s announcement, including writer and campaigner Ana Correa, who said “The decriminalisation and legalisation of abortion is finally within reach. Let’s hope that congress is up to the role assigned to it.”
The move by the Argentinian President to support a bill legalizing abortion, represents a major shift in the issue, which has been gaining more and more significance in the country. While there are major challenges ahead, including opposition from the Catholic Church, the prospect of increased rights for women is significant. The difficulties that women currently face across most Latin American countries, in terms of making decisions around their pregnancies, includes criminal penalties, marginalization, and dangerous risks to their own health. The possibility of Argentina legalizing abortion sends a strong message to other countries in the region, and to the activists and others who fight for greater rights and freedoms. Organized efforts and demonstrations by activists throughout Latin America have increased pressure on politicians to push towards expanding abortion access. Argentinian Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who had previously opposed abortion during her time as President from 2007 to 2015, supported the 2018 bill, citing the wave of activism at the time.
Ultimately, these developments in Argentina demonstrate significant steps in the movement towards wider abortion access and legalization across Latin America. This situation should be closely monitored, so that important lessons for other jurisdictions can be derived from it. The outright support of a head of state in Latin America represents a major shift, in a region where abortions are either heavily restricted or completely banned. It remains to be seen whether this will spur other political figures to also support increased abortion rights.