Senate Votes No
On Thursday, August 9th, the Argentine Senate voted at around 2:45 a.m. to reject a bill that would legalize abortion in Argentina, with 31 votes in favor and 38 votes against.
The bill, which would have included access to abortion in the free public health system within the first 14 weeks of gestation, also emphasized sexual and reproductive health as key human rights.
Thus, in addition to free and legal abortion, it had also pushed to improve universal access to sexual and reproductive health education in the country’s public school system. If passed, it would have also entailed expanded access to free contraceptives.
Narrow Victory in the Lower House, Defeat in the Senate
The bill’s June victory in the Lower House had already come as a huge surprise to many. The bill had seemed doomed to fail before a last-minute change in alliances allowed it to pass by only four votes.
Even though, in the Senate, the anti-abortion coalition had solidified itself as the majority a few days before the vote, activists had held onto hope for a similar upset in the more-conservative Senate.
The anti-abortion side officially gained the majority when Juan Carlos Romero, Peronist Senator for Salta, confirmed on August 2nd that he would vote against the bill, giving the “against” camp the 36 votes needed to defeat the bill in the Senate (Vice-President Michetti’s tie breaking vote would be against). Even though it had been speculated that he would vote against the bill, Romero had not made his position clear until last Thursday, less than a week before the final debate.
While many in the pro-choice camp continued to hope for a last-minute change until the last possible moment, the ultimate defeat of the bill was thus expected by many, especially following the news the on August 1st that pro-choice senators had failed to obtain enough votes to amend the proposed bill. These changes had been intended to “soften” the bill and make it more palatable for those who remained undecided, and included changing the threshold of legal abortion from 14 weeks of gestation to 12, as well as the authorization of institutional conscientious objection.
While most Senators claimed that they voted with their “conscience,” in the end, the vote was clearly divided along party lines.
A minority of the ruling Cambiemos coalition, 8 out of 25, voted in favor of the bill. The party is known for being politically and economically center-right, and applies a similar mentality to a number of social issues as well. Before the vote, President Mauricio Macri—the party’s leader—had stated that he wouldn’t veto the law if it were to cross his desk, but declared himself as a pro-life candidate.
Meanwhile, the majority of the Unión Cívica Radical block, 9 out of the 12 senators (75 percent), a centrist social-liberal political party in Argentina, voted in favor of the bill.
Frente para La Victoria–PJ, a center-left Peronist electoral alliance, voted almost unanimously in favor of legalizing abortion.
The PRO party and the Argentina Federal coalition, on the other hand, showed themselves to be more or less evenly split across the “for” and “against” sides.
There was also a clear regional divide between the final votes, which more or less followed the voting patterns in the Lower House. Those voting against the bill were representatives of the more conservative regions of Argentina. Typically, these are rural regions in the north of the country, including Senators from Salta, Jujuy, and Tucumán, who have been the most vocally opposed to the bill throughout the entirety of the debate.
The presence of the Catholic Church—which avowedly opposes abortion rights and called for Argentines to demonstrate against the bill before the vote— is also powerful within these provinces and is a significant factor behind representatives of these regions voting against the bill. Many point to extensive campaigning by the Church before the vote as the final straw that led to the solidifying of the “against” majority.
Meanwhile, those representing central and southern regions of the country—typically wealthier and more liberal areas where the Church has less of a significant presence—have generally shown themselves more open to legalizing abortion.
Who Wins, Who Loses
The largest sector of Argentine society who are negatively affected by the vote is fairly straightforward: the country’s women. Clandestine abortions remain the number one cause for death of pregnant women in Argentina. The vast majority of those who are affected are women living below the poverty line. These women cannot afford to travel to obtain safe and legal abortions abroad, or resort to the most dangerous forms of clandestine methods—such as using coat-hangers or self-harming in a number of different ways to induce abortion.
Argentina’s marginalized women can’t afford the expensive fees of non-medical “professional services” that come to their house to illicitly perform the abortion. These, of course, are still dangerous, but are generally considered to be slightly less so because of the number of times they’ve performed the procedure in the past.
Meanwhile, many of those who oppose the legalization of abortion in Argentina belong to the surprisingly widespread and lucrative clandestine sector, a million-dollar black market that profits at the expense of women’s health and lives. According to a study funded by Argentina’s Ministry of Health, non-medical “professionals” are hired to perform 371,000-522,000 illicit abortions per year, and the lucrative sector earns around AR $1 billion annually, or US $36.57 billion. While the current illegality of abortion does not decrease the rates of the practice, does endanger women’s lives and increases the rate of death of pregnant women within Argentina, it also validates this clandestine abortion market that profits at the cost of women across the country.
The Movement: Looking Ahead
In the face of the bill’s rejection, women’s rights activists in Argentina have promised to keep fighting. Many consider that the pro-choice movement has become a momentous phenomenon in the country, one that has gained a huge following especially in the last few years, and significant support within the country. They argue that such a vast, historic movement cannot simply be swept under the rug after it has arisen.
Pro-choice activists have also pointed to the energy and force behind the abortion bill as factors that will keep abortion at the forefront of the political agenda in Argentina for the foreseeable future—including in the next presidential election—and will ensure that a similar bill is once again brought to the table sooner rather than later.
Yet, after its rejection on Wednesday, the bill cannot be debated again until the next legislative period, which begins on March 1s, 2019.
However, Argentina’s next general elections will be taking place that same year, on October 27, 2019. Thus, much of the 2019 parliamentary year will be spent preparing for the presidential elections, and pro-choice activists might have to wait until 2020 before a similar bill is debated again.