CW: gender-based/sexual violence, rape.
Waving their trademark green scarves in solidarity, pro-choice campaigners erupted into ecstasy and jubilation outside the Argentinian congressional palace as the senate approved a historic bill to legalise abortion by thirty-eight votes in favour to twenty-nine against (with one abstention) on 30th December 2020. The crowd-members were part of the ‘marea verde’ or ‘green wave’, a movement that fights for gender equality and advocates for abortion, so that Argentinians can have control over their reproductive rights without fear of reprisals. Campaigners who have fought side-by-side for years to decriminalise abortion held each other tightly as the screen lit up with the word that would change so much for millions of Argentinians: APROBADO, (approved).
It is nigh-on impossible to understate the significance of this landmark decision. Argentina is a country where the Catholic Church has historically held sway, and it forms part of a continent where swathes of women and young girls are ostracised, shunned and even imprisoned for wanting to end their pregnancy. Once the Argentinian president, Alberto Fernández, signs the bill into law, Argentinians will be able to terminate their pregnancy for up to fourteen weeks, with exceptions after this point in cases of rape, foetal abnormalities or the endangerment of health. The wording of the law is also a cause for great celebration, as it is trans-inclusive, stating that anybody with a womb and the ability to get pregnant will be able to freely access abortions at public hospitals. However, the fight for equality does not end here; the ‘marea verde’ movement is now advocating for improved sexual education and access to contraception to go hand in hand with the new law.
In the context of its geographical location, Argentina is a highly progressive country with comprehensive LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. It was the first country in Latin America to legalise gay marriage and has been lauded by the World Health Organisation for its support of transgender rights. Since Argentina transitioned to democracy in 1983, equality has been supported by both public opinion and legislation. Even staunchly conservative and Catholic politicians have put aside their personal views on matters of equality—a practise now a cornerstone of Argentinian democracy. President Fernández is himself deeply Catholic, but has nonetheless recognised the need for more liberal abortion laws; he stated after the bill’s passage that he has to legislate for everyone regardless of his religious persuasions. However, this is not to say that the fight for abortion rights has been plain-sailing. This new bill owes a large debt to the pro-choice campaigners who have worked tirelessly for more than seventeen years and through thirteen draft bills to advocate for this change.
The spirit of the pro-abortion campaign is encapsulated by the #NiUnaMenos (‘not one woman less’) grassroots feminist movement which has spearheaded the fight against femicide and gender-based violence and argued for a reduction in the gender pay gap and for the enshrinement of transgender rights in law. Spurred on by rage following the murder of Chiara Paez, a pregnant fourteen-year-old who was found beaten to death and buried under her boyfriend’s house, the movement organised demonstrations which also found their footing in several other cities in Latin America.
In 2016, the movement organised a mass strike following the murder of sixteen-year-old Lucía Perez who was raped and imapled. During the so-called Miércoles negro (Black Wednesday), millions of women in Buenos Aires and beyond dressed up in black to mourn the death of Lucía and of thousands of other victims of gender-based violence. The indefatigable efforts of the #NiUnaMenos movement were pivotal in the legalisation of abortion in Argentina, providing the framework for the demands of equality and the impetus for the fight for abortion rights. The legacy of the movement can be seen in the crowds of women in Buenos Aires, Madrid and Oaxaca who protest every 8th March on International Women’s Day against gender inequality. It can be seen in the faces of the women who don green attire as part of the ‘marea verde’ movement and campaign in the streets. It can be seen in the faces of every campaigner, each of whom has their own personal connection to the women. And, above all, it can be heard in the shouts of every campaigner who is no longer willing to be silent and submissive on the matter. Every single one of these campaigners will benefit from the autonomy abortion legalisation grants them; each tear-stricken face in Argentina on 30th December 2020 is testament to the bill’s transformative power.
The legalisation of abortion cannot just be credited to more recent movements, however. The pro-abortion campaigners stand on the shoulders of another landmark social movement, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. This 1970s movement was composed of the mothers and grandmothers of children who ‘disappeared’ during the military dictatorship in Argentina, which was led by Jorge Rafael Videla. The women would meet every Thursday in the main square in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, with the goal to raise awareness for their cause, find their children and, later, advocate for harsh sentencing for the culprits of crimes against humanity. They wore their children’s nappies as headscarves, embroidered with their children’s names.. The current pro-abortion activists wear green headscarves in homage to these women and in a nod to the poignant parallels between the two movements.
Despite the cause for celebration for many people in Argentina and beyond, inevitably there are anti-abortion groups that are disappointed and angry with the bill. Standing next to the crowds of jubilant campaigners following the legalisation of abortion were a more sombre crowd of anti-abortion campaigners who welcomed the news with a heavy heart. Under the slogan ‘Salvemos las dos vidas’ (Let’s save both lives), these campaigners argue that abortion is a crime. They view abortion as tantamount to a death sentence for someone who has not yet been born. What these groups fail to realise is that by continuing to criminalise abortion, abortion does not stop. On the contrary, women and young girls are forced into unsafe backstreet abortions where their lives are at risk. The situation is even direr for poorer women and girls who cannot afford clinics or doctors who promise to keep their abortions confidential. These women and girls often have to induce their own abortions through haphazard means and are left at the whim of doctors and nurses who may choose to have them prosecuted for their choice or leave them to die rather than treating them.
It is estimated that over 3,000 Argentinians die every year from illegal abortions and given that by reporting these abortions there is a risk of prosecution and imprisonment, the true scale of the problem is likely even greater. In obstinately pushing to ‘save both lives’, anti-abortion campaigners are really arguing for a situation where often no lives are saved. When women have neither access to contraception or abortion services, they are left in a limbo where their rights are incidental to those of an unborn child. These women, who could go on to become doctors or lawyers or academics and lead a life full of happiness and joy, are instead left silenced and vilified by those who have no sympathy for the pain women endure when going through an abortion. Nobody has an abortion just because they feel like it. It is often a heart-breaking and, always, a very personal decision. The state should support abortion by funding safe, well-run hospitals and centres to offer this choice.
The question of religion is also fundamental to the debate on abortion in Argentina. Argentina is a largely Catholic country and it is finding itself caught between the need for equality and the religious tensions that this progress creates. It is impossible to reconcile the need for women’s autonomy over their bodies with an institution that holds such a firm position against it. The current pope, Pope Francis, is Argentinian and therefore has a close personal connection to what has become a political chess game between the Church and the State. In an open letter penned last year, Pope Francis argued against legalising abortion, writing: “Is it fair to eliminate a human life to solve a problem? Is it fair to hire a hitman to solve a problem?”. It is clear that on both sides of the issue there are appeals to emotion and deeply rooted tensions that complicate the debate.
However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the Catholic Church is pitted against the Argentinian government in such a way that there is no nuance in the debate. Many Argentinians fall along a spectrum of support for legalising abortion and for every Catholic who is in favour of legalising abortion, there is a women’s rights activist who is opposed to the idea. The Catholic Church is an institution and therefore does not reflect the wide plethora of personal views of Catholics in Argentina. Increasingly, more and more young Catholic women support abortion and gender equality at odds with the official Church’s stance on the issue. Unless the Catholic Church begins to recognise the increasingly liberal view that these believers take towards abortion, it risks alienating a generation of Catholics who do not see themselves reflected in such an orthodox, unbending dismissal of abortion.
In spite of the tensions that the legalisation of abortion has raised in Argentina, the decision has been rightly hailed as a milestone in the fight for equality. It is hoped that the effects of this law will ripple and reverberate across the rest of Latin America, where currently only Cuba, Guyana and Uruguay have legalised abortion. Most Latin American countries allow abortion in critical situations, but in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, abortion is still completely banned in all circumstances, even in the case of rape.
The new law has undoubtedly opened up the conversation about abortion across Latin America, where campaigners on both sides seem to hold staunchly opposing views. The Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has previously tried to dodge and duck any consideration of the issue, has acquiesced and stated that women should have the agency to advocate for the greater liberalisation of Mexican abortion rights. Conversely, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsanaro, has publicly stated that he will do anything in his power to block any bill to legalise abortion. But if the legions of women and girls protesting in the streets of Brasilía and Santiago and Bogotá are anything to go by, Bolsanaro and anti-abortion advocates across the continent have an uphill battle ahead. The ‘marea verde’ has officially washed over Latin America and there is a tangible appetite for change.
Image credit Paula Kindsvater via Wikimedia Commons