The push for a debate in Congress on decriminalizing and legalizing abortion has gained momentum as the Cambiemos alliance has signaled that it is open to discussing the matter in the coming legislative year.
Following a meeting between Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña and the chairs of the Cambiemos caucuses in Congress, Peña reportedly indicated that the Executive would not set up any obstacles to debate on the bills seeking to decriminalize abortion in Argentina. The government has also indicated that it would allow Cambiemos lawmakers to vote their consciences.
Abortion activists and lawmakers in favor of legalization have been seeking changes to the law for years and this week thousands mobilized to Congress and online in support of reforms. While committees in the Lower House have debated bills in the past, those initiatives have not made it out of committee for debate on the floor. Estimates indicate that as of now there could be up to 100 votes in the Lower House in favor of legalizing abortion, short of the necessary for the majority of 129.
Support for reform is drawn from across the parties in Congress, particularly in the Lower House. The Senate is traditionally a more conservative chamber and any reform would have to overcome even greater resistance.
Cambiemos does not have a majority in either chamber of Congress but any reform would require the the president’s endorsement to become law.
Significantly, President Mauricio Macri and Peña, among other government figures, have consistently indicated that they do not support any decriminalization. Former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was of the same opinion when she was in power.
Abortion is currently illegal and considered a crime in Argentina except in circumstances of a health threat to a woman’s life, cases of pregnancy following rape or sexual abuse of a woman with a mental disability. Lawmakers seeking decriminalization in the coming weeks will table a bill that decriminalizes abortions during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. The reintroduction of the bill, the seventh time it has been submitted to Congress, is necessary as each bill expires after two years if it is not passed into law.
Debate on abortion reform could take months and likely include a parade of experts on both sides of the divide appearing before committees. Reacting to the prospects of a debate, Libres del Sur Lawmaker Victoria Donda said today on Radio Continental that “if it’s true that the president has given the greenlight to debate the legalization of abortion, we hope that on the 8th of March there is a quorum for debate in a special session”. A women’s strike has also been called for March 8.
Donda noted that while there are multiple bills up for debate, the one with the greatest level of support across party lines is the one drafted by the Campaign for Legal, Safe and Free Abortions. The basic premise of the campaign is “sexual education to decide, contraception to not have abortions and abortions to not die,” Donda said, calling abortion an option of last resort and its legalization a guarantee that clandestine and unsafe abortions will no longer take place.
It may not be so simple.
PRO senator and party chair Humberto Schiavoni reminded listeners in a radio interview with radio Millenium that his party “is not advocating nor promoting the debate on decriminalization, but this is an issue that is important to many sectors in society, including to other lawmakers in other parties.” He added that was a matter where lawmakers had to vote “according to their moral, religious and personal convictions” instead of party positions.
According to Argentina’s Health Ministry, between 370,000 and 522,000 abortions are performed annually, most of them considered illegal. La Nación has reported, citing Health Ministry figures, that 43 women died in 2016 because of abortions, representing 17.6 percent of the deaths of pregnant women that year.