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In a Victory for the Feminist Movement, Lower House Approves Right to Abortion in Argentina

Argentina takes a step towards legalizing abortion, with the law passing the lower house of Congress.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

December 11, 2020
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(AFP via Getty Images)

After decades of struggle, Argentina’s green bandana movement — the mass movement that took the streets by storm —- has won a step towards legalizing abortion. Early on Friday morning, the House of Representatives passed the measure: 131 in favor and 117 against, with six abstentions. Sometime in the next few weeks, the bill, which is supported by President Alberto Fernandez, will go to the Senate for a vote. It seems likely to pass.

Last night’s scene was a familiar scene, reminiscent of the mass movement in 2018. Wearing masks as well as the green bandanas that symbolize the right to an abortion, thousands of people came out in expectation. Thousands stood in the plaza in front of the Argentine Congress, wearing green bandanas. The 2018 movement made the green bandanas a commonly worn symbol in Argentina, hanging from backpacks to show support for the right to an abortion — even when the bill was not being considered in Congress. Last night, there were fiery speeches by experienced activists — those who have been pushing this for 15 years, as well as by young women recently awakened to political life. Thousands of banners read “make it  law.” People held home-made green signs. A little girl, no more than 8 years old, held a glitter sign reading “my mother taught me to fight” and an older woman held a sign with the words “this time.” Political parties gathered with drums, chanting about the right to an abortion, against femicide, and against austerity.

This morning, several thousand activists were still in the plaza. They had spent the entire night night watching the debate on large screens, and wanted to show that the movement is alive and well — and that they and the entire feminist movement are watching and continuing the fight. When the vote finally took place early on Friday morning, protesters tearfully hugged and cheered. A key step to legalize abortion had been taken. 

Abortion at present is punishable by prison time for homicide, except in cases of rape or when the life of the person carrying the fetus is at risk. Such was the case with Belen (not her real name), who suffered a miscarriage and once at the hospital was reported to the authorities and sentenced to eight years in prison. She was released as the result of a mass movement calling attention to her case. 

Indeed, Argentine feminists, part of one of the world’s strongest feminist movement, have been the ones to force the government’s hand on the right to an abortion. First and foremost have been the massive mobilizations, numbering up to 1 million in the streets of Argentina in 2018. Then, the movement achieved approval of the right to an abortion by the House of Representatives, for the first time. But that time, despite the mass mobilization, it did not pass the Senate, where 38 senators ignored the hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding their rights. This time around, President  Fernandez has promised that the Senate will pass the bill.

This vote also built on the feminist movement over the past few years, including the massive #NiUnaMenos (not one less) mobilizations against femicide in 2015, as well as the massive March 8 International Women’s Day mobilizations. 

The existence of anti-abortion laws has not kept people from having abortions; it just means that they find ways to have abortions that are unsafe, resulting in more than 300 deaths a year in Argentina. Nearly 40,000 women were admitted to public hospitals for complications arising from illegal abortions in 2016 alone, according to a new report. Of these, 6,400 were of girls and teenagers ages 10 to 19. The absence of abortion rights has also meant forcing some people to  have children when they don’t want to: 7,000 girls ages 10 to 14 delivered babies in 2016-2018, frequently the result of rape, according to a recent report by Argentina’s Access to Safe Abortion Network.

Nicolas del Cano, former socialist candidate for President and current member of Congress, spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives about this.

It is estimated that Argentina, where the majority of the population self-identifies as Catholic, is one of the countries with the highest numbers of illegal and unsafe abortions in the world. And its criminalization has only resulted in the deaths of many young, low-income women, some of whom have left behind orphaned daughters and sons, because they were unable to avoid a pregnancy that affected their health, as in the case of Ana María Acevedo, whose mother is supporting this demand in her memory

Those who oppose this right are not defending life; they are defending illegal abortions. And they intend to continue to impose patriarchal norms, according to which women’s sexuality should be exclusively at the service of reproduction, because sexual pleasure and desire should be reserved only for men.

This bill that passed the House of Representatives would legalize abortion up to 14 weeks and makes it free as part of Argentina’s public healthcare plan. But the bill is not the same one the feminist movement presented in 2018. This year’s plan, which has the president’s support, includes a major concession to the Catholic Church and the anti-abortion Right: a “moral objection clause” that not only allows individual medical professionals to refuse to perform abortions, but allows entire hospitals and health providers  to “morally object” to abortions and deny them. In other words, healthcare institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church may make their entire staffs “moral objectors” and thus deny the right to an abortion — which will force those seeking abortions to go to other institutions and, in some cases, have to travel to other towns or even other states. This provision is why the socialist Left and Workers Front members of Congress submitted a strong disagreement while still voting in favor of the bill. 

The fight for abortion has faced formidable foes. The Catholic Church in particular has huge influence over Argentine politics — even the pope hails from Argentina. The Argentine government pays the salaries of Church officials, and the Church supports and props up politicians it hand-picks to serve its interests. One of the demands of the feminist movement is the separation of church and state — symbolized by an increasingly popular orange bandana.  

In 2018, though, it was not the Church that ultimately voted to kill the bill in the Senate — it was the capitalist parties, which maintain an alliance with the Vatican. Before then, the “progressive” Pink Tide government of Kirchner had refused to allow a vote on the measure, despite its claims to represent the interests of women. It was Mauricio Macri, the president who followed — and known as the CEO president — who allowed a vote in the legislature. But in 2018, the bill failed because legislators from every capitalist party split included “nay” votes on abortion — only the representatives from the socialist Left and Workers Front voted unanimously for it. Among the parties whose candidates included those both for and against abortion were the Peronist alliance, which went on to make up the more “progressive” 2019 coalition — the “Front for All”— that brought current President Fernandez and former president Cristina Kirchner to the vice presidency. As president, Kirchner was against abortion rights. But now, it is the “Front for All” that proposed the current abortion bill. 

The “Front for All” may try to make the vote now about “benevolent” members of Congress, but that’s false. It is the work of the feminist movement, which created huge pressure to pass this law. The government is also taking this step now as a concession, just as it begins to implement severe austerity measures to address the massive economic crisis that is befalling Argentina in the midst of the pandemic. Inflation is through the roof and the government, which promised reforms for the working class, is not able to deliver on its promises. Instead, the Senate — likely at the bidding of the International Monetary Fund — just approved a pension reform that will allow pensions to fall behind inflation. Abortion rights, though a victory for the feminist movement, is insufficient to solve the deep economic and social crisis workers and the oppressed are facing.

Del Cano highlighted this:

We must not lose sight of the fact that this does not end today. Even if the bill is approved in the lower chamber, it still has to be discussed again in the same Senate that in 2018 turned its back on the hundreds of thousands of people who were fighting for this bill. This is the same Senate that, under the IMF’s orders, is now voting to approve new austerity measures for millions of retired women who have worked all their lives.

While the Fernandez government has been unable to deliver on most of its electoral promises, it may be able to deliver on this one — the right to an abortion. 

The bill will now advance to the Senate, where a vote is scheduled by January 1st. If it passes, it will be a huge victory for the feminist movement which, for decades, has fought in the streets for this right and has inspired people the world over with their struggle.

Andrea D’Atri, socialist feminist leader of “Bread and Roses,” claims that the energy and politicial lessons of the mass feminist movement are present in the various struggles facing Argentina now: the struggle against austerity, the struggle for housing, and the struggle for land in the mass encampment at Guernica. Those struggles are also feminist struggles.

Our struggle is what has made us come this far and we will likely see abortion made law in a few weeks. But to really win our rights, we have to remain in the streets. The feminist movement in Argentina achieved international recognition with Ni Una Menos and, later, the green wave for the right to an abortion. This spirit is still alive in the women who occupy the streets of Jujuy against femicides, or fight for land and housing in the land occupations in Guernica and other parts of the country.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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