The final vote to decide whether or not Argentina will legalize and decriminalize abortion is now less than a month away, scheduled for August 8th. On Tuesday, July 11, the first informative meeting on abortion took place in the Senate.
Members of the Senate crowded into the too-small Illia Hall throughout the five-hour session, with many of the legislators’ advisors and journalists forced to witness the debate standing due to a lack of sufficient chairs.
Specialists representing both sides of the debate presented their arguments in front of the three men who chaired the session: Senator Mario Fiad, Senator Pedro Guastiavino, and Senator Dalmacio Mera. The session saw many of the same arguments, both in favor and against, that had already been stated in Congress. In fact, 14 of the 18 speakers that appeared on Tuesday had already spoken previously in Congress, reiterating the same concepts that they had stated before.
Each speaker was given seven minutes to speak before answering questions from the Senators. Of the 18 who spoke, exactly half were in favor and half were against legalizing abortion. However, there was a clear divide across gender lines. The majority of those who opposed abortion rights were men, while most pro-choice advocates were women.
As the debate has already provoked much controversy and strife between Argentine politicians, applause, boos, whistles, and murmurs—all of which were present during the Congressional debate— were banned from the Senate session in an attempt to assuage tensions. The use of handkerchiefs, donned by both sides to identify themselves as either pro-choice or pro-life, the latter wearing green handkerchiefs and the former wearing blue, was also banned. This was likely in response to a contentious moment before the June vote in Congress, when the pro-choice bloc of the ruling PRO party took a photo together wearing green handkerchiefs. The next day, the pro-life faction of the same party took their own photo with blue handkerchiefs.
Pro-life speakers largely relied on emotional appeals to the audience. Among those who spoke against abortion rights were Rabbi Fernando Szlajen and priest Matías Jurado. Jurado told the Senate that any woman who chooses to get an abortion does so because she is “broken inside,” while women who have a fulfilled social and family life do not abort. He asked for those who know women considering abortion to provide them with support so that they don’t get one, even in cases of rape. Meanwhile, Szlajen spoke of slippery slopes and the “on-demand killing of unborn children.”
Other arguments that the pro-life camp once again touched upon in the Senate included speaking of life beginning from the point of conception, discussing children instead of fetuses or embryos, and speaking of abortion as murder, unconstitutional, and illegal. Others pushed for adoption as an alternative to abortion, including fertility specialist Eduardo Young, who spoke of “prenatal embryo adoption.” Another who spoke in favor of adoption was urologist Fernando Cesin, who likened abortion to the mass forced “disappearances” of people by the military dictatorship that occurred during Argentina’s 1976–1983 Dirty War. There was visible reproachment to this statement in the Senate, and Senator Miguel Angel Pichetto quickly asked Cesin not to “assimilate abortion with the forced disappearance of people,” emphasizing that “words must be used in a prudent manner.”
At the same time, while sociologist María Elena Critto argued that clandestine abortions are actually not the first cause of maternal mortality in Argentina—as a number of organizations including Human Rights Watch have reported—and that abortions actually increase when they become legal in countries.
Doctor Mariana Romero, however, quickly refuted these statements, using statistics from the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health that showed the opposite: Romero stated that, according to data from both sources, 18 percent of maternal deaths in Argentina are due to unsafe abortions, and showed that, in countries where abortion is legal, both maternal mortality and numbers of total abortions decrease. Romero had already stated these statistics during the congressional debate, as had Minister of Health Adolfo Rubinstein.
Meanwhile, while anti-abortionists argued that abortion is not only unconstitutional but also goes against all international human rights agreements, pro-choice advocates emphasized that the constitution “not only does not prohibit it, but demands it,” as was stated by lawyer Marcelo Alegre. Lawyer Martín Farrell, meanwhile, argued for the constitutionality of abortion by emphasizing the “fundamentals of freedom” in the Argentine constitution, delving into the concept of “autonomy.”
Also speaking in favor of the bill— which would not only legalize abortion abortion in the free public health system, but which would also improve universal access to sexual and reproductive health education in the Argentine public school system, and expand access to free contraceptives—was Doctor Pedro Cahn, Director of Fundación Huésped who is also a psychoanalyst and key advocate for the National Campaign for Free, Legal and Safe Abortion. Cahn said that doctors who say they won’t perform abortions are like those that “denied treatment to HIV/AIDS patients” at the onset of the epidemic.
Today, 24 more specialists are scheduled to speak in the second session in the Senate.