Women’s rights took centre-stage in Argentina this August, as the Senate debated whether to legalize abortion. In March 2018, and for the seventh consecutive year, the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy (IVE) bill was presented to the Chamber of Deputies. The bill, drafted by the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, was narrowly-passed by the lower house, paving the way for a Senate vote. However, to the disappointment of 60 per cent of Argentines – as per a poll conducted by Amnesty International Argentina – the bill was rejected by the Senate on August 9th. Abortion thus remains illegal, highly unsafe, and very expensive.
Soon after the bill was defeated, media attention returned to normal in Argentina, with political corruption once again dominating the fray. In the meantime, unreported by mainstream news outlets, a 34-year-old woman died in the region of Buenos Aires due to an infection caused by a clandestine abortion. “Women are not going to stop having abortions due to it being prohibited,” said the managing editor of Pagina 12, Nora Veiras.
Human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, report that access to legal and safe abortions is a critical issue for the country. Argentina fares poorly in overall female mortality rates, and complications due to women having clandestine abortions contribute to this figure. According to the Direction of Statistics and Health Information, abortion is the principal cause of death for pregnant women in Argentina. Chief of staff Marcos Peña stated it was the cause of 43 deaths in 2016. This conservative figure includes 12 “spontaneous miscarriages,” while the rest (72 percent) were registered as “failed abortion attempts,” “unspecified abortions,” and “other abortions.” However, there is no official data on clandestine abortions. During his presentation before Congress, Minister of Health Adolfo Rubinstein supported the IVE bill and said, “in our official statistics, there is under-registration of abortion as a maternal death cause”. Accordingly, a study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) found that in Argentina there are 500,000 abortions per year.
According to The Guardian, an estimated 3,000 women have died of illegal abortions since 1983 in the South American country. Activists claim that between 45,000 to 60,000 women are hospitalized each year due to post-abortion complications. La Nación reported that the official figure for 2014 was of 47.063 hospital discharges for abortion. “In Argentina, abortion is only allowed in cases of rape and risks to a woman’s health. Thousands of women, most of them poor, are hospitalized each year for complications linked to unsafe abortions … many women in Argentina use misoprostol to end first-trimester pregnancies. The drug is only sold under prescription, but for the poorest women the cost of the drug is out of reach,” reports the Associated Press.
The IVE bill was proposed to address women’s right to good healthcare. Worldwide, there are four main complications that account for nearly 75 percent of all maternal deaths: severe bleeding and infections (normally after giving birth), high blood pressure during pregnancy, complications from delivery, and unsafe abortions. Regarding the latter, the World Health Organization’s recommendation is that “all women, including adolescents, need access to contraception, safe abortion services to the full extent of the law, and quality post-abortion care.”
The historic debate gained worldwide attention. On the freezing, windswept night the bill was debated in the Senate, over one million people rallied outside parliament to voice their support or opposition. In a largely Catholic country, with the current pope hailing from Buenos Aires, the influence of the church and conservative politicians was always going to be a defining factor.
During debates in lower and upper houses, the ‘pro-life’, anti-abortion movement uniformly justified their posture by focusing on political, economic, legal, religious, and moral aspects. While a few legislators presented valid arguments regarding a lack of efficient public policies, such as sexual education, all of them circumvented the central purpose of the bill: expanding women’s rights and their reproductive and sexual choices. A few of the arguments were not only polemic but ridiculously far-fetched. Legislator Estela Regidor, for example, compared women with ‘bitches’ and said their ‘puppies’ should be distributed upon birth if they cannot care for them. Abel Albino, an Argentine paediatrician, Opus Dei member and founder of Cooperating for Child Nutrition Foundation, discredited the use of condoms as an effective method to prevent the transmission of HIV; and suggested that abstinence is the best option against unwanted pregnancies. Another representative was worried about the emergence of a black market for foetuses’ organs. On the streets, the ‘pro-life’ slogan was “Salvemos las dos vidas” (Save both lives), but this is a false claim given the adverse state of women’s health in the country.
Technically, Argentina does not have an official religion. In practice, however, the Catholic Church is subsidized by the government for being the “largest religious creed.” The Catholic Church is also deeply involved in national politics. Historically, religion, its values and institutions were the main forces against the legislation of divorce or same-sex marriage. This year, the church was a key player behind the decision reached by the Senate against the IVE bill. As the newspaper El Destape put it: “the pressure of the Catholic Church on the provinces that make up the Senate, coupled with the political aspirations of future candidates, managed to defeat the project.”
Despite the setback, the social movement supporting women’s reproductive rights has been strengthened. Firstly, the discussion about abortion finally lost its taboo and permeated many levels of society. Secondly, the group of legislators who supported the bill (calling themselves “las Sororas”, from the religious word ‘sor’ meaning ‘mother’ or ‘sister’), were the engine behind a ‘green wave’ of activism – the social movement backing the bill adopted a green handkerchief as its symbol. This is truly significant for Argentinean women and men, as traditionally they have little trust in their politicians. The bill was also backed by legislators from multiple political parties, another positive in such a polarized society.
The debate has set in motion a shift in public opinion around women’s rights and gendered roles. Furthermore, the contribution and support from academics, human rights institutions, NGO’s and, importantly, by women and men from all walks of life, was momentous. Indeed, the feeling of sisterhood originating from the “Ni una menos” campaign (similar to the #MeToo movement) was emboldened by the debate. “We are women giving birth to a law; Let’s give it life”, pronounced the actress Dolores Fonzi during her presentation at the lower house. The ‘green wave’ also has the potential to become a tsunami, as it crossed borders and is already inspiring other Latin American women in their quest for greater rights.
After the defeat of the bill, Argentina was left without a policy that would have protected the lives and improved the rights of women. The bill’s proposal to address the leading cause of maternal mortality in Argentina has the potential to be a solution to a persistent and multifaceted public health problem. Certainly, to be a comprehensive approach, this bill must be supported by other preventive policies focused on the problematic issue of poverty, distance to hospitals, inadequate social services, and cultural practices. The discussion about the legalization of abortion is a complex one and individual choices, values and morals should be respected: This is precisely why the project was put forward. However, metaphysics and private beliefs should not impact the ability of women to receive proper medical care. It is essential to recognize that restricting abortion does not reduce the number of terminations, it only increases maternal mortality, allows for a clandestine industry, and disproportionately impacts poor women.
“Abortion is the last place a woman wants to arrive at, it is the anti-desire,” says Nora Veiras. The IVE bill does not force women to abort, but it would safely assist those who are determined to end unwanted pregnancies. On the other hand, keeping the practice clandestine forces women to practice unsafe abortions and risk their lives. Many in Argentina are convinced the decision was merely a stumbling block. What Argentinians need now is patience. Over the coming years the project will be presented once more to the lower house, with activists determined to see the bill become reality. With polls showing that a large percentage of the nation agrees with the bill, its approval seems like a plausible reality. But it should not be taken for granted; passing the bill will involve further citizen participation and commitment in public debates and politics. The lesson from this historic debate is precisely that: Make your voice heard. Most importantly, this discussion is about women being able to make choices freely, especially over their own bodies. Legalizing abortion is one stepping stone towards gender equality; a concept that is at the core of development ideals and highly important in matters of world peace.
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