Argentina Senate debates elective abortion law

Eitan Abramovich, AFP | Activists in favour of the legalisation of abortion demonstrate outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on August 8, 2018.

The Senate in deeply Catholic Argentina has begun a session to debate and vote on a bill legalising elective abortions in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.


Demonstrators on both sides of the issue have rallied outside Congress, braving the cold and rain to stand vigil as the Senate debates the bill. Buses have brought people to Buenos Aires from all over Argentina. Pro-choice activists have donned green scarves or dressed as characters from "The Handmaid’s Tale", a novel about the oppression of women. Anti-abortion demonstrators wear baby blue for the Argentine flag and the Catholic Church.

The Senate is expected to vote at 5am (Paris time).

Currently, abortion is allowed in Argentina only in cases of rape, a threat to the mother’s life or a nonviable fetus.

There have been seven attempts to introduce elective abortion legislation over the years, but this is the first bill to be debated in Parliament, thanks in part to President Mauricio Macri. Although he himself is anti-abortion, he has insisted on the vote. "As a society it presents a peaceful scenario to promote and carry out change," the president wrote.

Members of both the leftist opposition and Macri’s conservative coalition are divided on the issue: the bill passed the lower house by only 4 votes in June.

Since then, religious groups have stepped up efforts to prevent the change.

Argentina, the homeland of Pope Francis, is still a very religious society. The Catholic and Evangelical churches have long exerted a strong political and cultural influence.

“There has been overt pressure from priests. In their Sunday sermons, they have listed the names of politicians, saying, basically, ‘they better vote for this or else’”, said FRANCE 24’s Douglas Herbert.

Argentina abortion bill: Will the Church sway the vote?

Many are angry about what they see as Church interference in secular affairs, but the lobbying isn’t new, Marcela Lopez Levy, expert at the Institute of Latin American Studies, told FRANCE 24. “The Catholic Church has a history of putting a lot of pressure on politicians and on doctors and public health officials to affect how they distribute contraception, never mind whether they can be involved in terminations and abortions.”

‘A sea change’

But support is growing, despite pressure from churches. Feminist dialogue, once foreign to an older generation, has infiltrated even the most conservative bastions of Argentine society, like conservative television talk show “Instrusos” opening up cross-generational conversations on the issue.

A group that raised awareness about violence against women, Ni Una Menos (Not One Less), helped bring feminism mainstream after a national outry over the 2015 murder of a 14-year-old girl. The ensuing domestic violence awareness campaign brought thousands into the streets and drew the support of the former president Cristina Kirchner and football star Lionel Messi. In the years since, the movement shifted attention to other legal protections for women.

Pro-choice demonstrations have been growing for months, at times bringing the capital of Buenos Aires to a standstill. Green scarves, for the colour adopted by the women’s rights movement, are ubiquitous. Many are emblazoned with white letters reading: “Sex education to decide. Contraceptives to avoid abortion. Legal abortion to avoid death.”

“There has been a sea change in public opinion. However the Senate votes today, the way in which people are thinking about the issues has radically shifted,” Lopez Levy told FRANCE 24.

'A sea change in public opinion'

Earlier this year an Amnesty International survey found 60 percent of respondents supported legalisation.

By couching the debate in terms of the public health threat of clandestine abortions, the pro-choice camp has successfully swayed traditional opponents.

Between 350,000 and 500,000 illegal abortions are performed each year in Argentina. Argentina’s health ministry has estimated that hundreds of women die from secret, unsafe procedures, making it the leading cause of maternal death. An additional 45,000 to 60,000 women are hospitalised each year due to complications.

“The reality of abortion in Argentina and in a lot of other countries where there is a restriction, is that it doesn’t prevent abortion. What it really does is force women, and overwhelmingly poorer women who don’t have the resources for safer, clear, private clinics, to go get illegal abortions,” says Douglas Herbert.

Uruguay, which legalised abortion in 2012, has seen maternal mortality plummet.

‘The world is watching’

On Tuesday, Amnesty International took out a full page advertisement in the New York Times. In a white font on a green background is the word “adios” and the outline of a coat hanger, the symbol of back-alley abortions. “The world is watching,” says the fine print.

Neighbouring nations in particularly are paying attention. If the bill passes, Argentina would become the most populous nation in the region to legalise abortion. In Latin America and the Caribbean, seven countries still have total bans on abortion. In El Salvador women who receive abortions can face long jail times on charges of aggravated homicide. Elective abortions are legal only in Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay and Mexico City.

The campaign in Argentina has inspired women in other countries. The now iconic green handkerchiefs were adopted in Chile where thousands rallied in Santiago to demand an overhaul the country’s restrictive abortion laws. In Brazil, home to the world’s largest Catholic population, the Supreme Court held a public hearing to consider the constitutionality of its abortion laws.

Despite the change in public opinion, Argentina’s Senate is widely expected to fall short of the votes needed to pass the bill. Thirty seven of the 72 senators have expressed opposition to the bill. But experts and activists say it’s not the end of the road.

“There’s a real sense that if it doesn’t get passed today, it will happen at some point not so far in the future,” said Lopez Levy.

If the bill does fail, lawmakers must wait a year before submitting the legislation again.

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