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Argentina braces for a new abortion debate

President Fernández readies bill for Congress in the coming days

By | [email protected] | March 12, 2020 4:27pm

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President Alberto Fernández is putting the finishing touches on a bill to legalize abortion in Argentina, as he announced at his state-of-the union address. The country’s Congress is set to debate the initiative again this year, as it did in 2018. But this time, activists hope the outcome will be different, given the government’s support. Although the process in both chambers will still be tight, the land of Pope Francis could soon become the largest Latin American nation allowing abortion on demand during the first trimester.

This will be the first time that a president promotes a pro-choice policy and addresses it as a public health issue. Government sources estimate that the bill would be ready by the end of this week, although the timeline could change given the current emergency around the coronavirus pandemic.

Abortion is currently banned under the country’s criminal code, which stems from 1921. It is only allowed under certain circumstances, such as rape or when the life of the pregnant woman is at risk. Resistance from doctors and hospitals to conduct the procedure is still not uncommon, even in cases authorized by the law.

According to statistics released by the country’s Ministry of Health, 43 women died from complications resulting from a clandestine abortion in 2016, and another 30 did so in 2017, making it one of the leading causes of maternal death. Official estimates say between 370,000 and 522,000 abortions are performed each year.

The Pope and the Church

The President still maintains a good relationship with Pope Francis, and visited him at the end of January, when it was already clear that Fernández would push for legalization. At a press conference in Rome, Fernández said he did not want to revive the disputes between the blue (pro-life) and green (pro-choice) scarves, which Argentines often wear depending on which side of the debate they are on.

“My commitment is to give women the possibility that, if they want to have an abortion, they can do it legally, and to also help those who want to have their children,” Fernández told reporters after meeting with Pope Francis.

That line was telling about the approach Fernández would take to try to mend fences with the Church as, simultaneously with the announcement that he would send a project for the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, he also anticipated the creation of a program to support pregnant women during the first 1000 days of their children’s life.

Still, that announcement was not enough to stop the response from the Church, which on March 8th organized a mass and a mobilization to the Basilica of Luján centered on pro-life mottos.

An unprecedented measure

Fernández appointed three top officials to work on the project: Legal and Technical Secretary Vilma Ibarra, Health Minister Ginés González García and Minister of Women, Gender and Diversity Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta. The three hold regular meetings coordinated by Chief of Staff Santiago Cafiero. Ibarra and Gómez Alcorta are two prominent feminist lawyers, while González García is known for being a proponent of legalization since his previous term under Néstor Kirchner’s presidency.

President Fernández is currently reviewing the draft, according to information published by La Nación. The government has not provided any further details on the bill. It is estimated that the possibility of terminating the pregnancy will be extended to 14 weeks and there were doubts as to whether hospitals linked to the Church can invoke objection of conscience to refuse to perform an abortion. “Clinics have to comply with public health standards,” Vilma Ibarra said in a recent interview on the C5N news channel.

“It should be noted that this is the first time in Argentine history that a President is to send a bill on the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy (IVE, for its Spanish acronym). The strength of the bills tabled by an Executive Branch has a symbolic importance that should not be underestimated”, Minister Gómez Alcorta said in a conversation with The Essential.

“I think it is important to stress that the parliamentary debate of 2018 not only took place within the framework of the institutions, but also generated a very strong social debate. Beforehand, abortion was not discussed as naturally as it was from that moment on. This possibility of listening to 700 people in the House of Representatives, with the plurality of voices that existed, enriched the debate and made the subject stop being taboo,” Gómez Alcorta added.

“This process that preceded us came about with a demand that remained very firm in the streets, it hasn’t diminished. And now, for the first time, there is a political decision by who is governing the country to send the bill”, the minister concluded.

Executive backing, congressional resistance

Mariela Belski, director of Amnesty International’s local chapter, welcomed Fernández’s decision to submit a bill to legalize abortion in conversation with The Essential.

“This is a very important step. If Argentina decriminalizes, considering it is the Pope’s land, this is going to be a strong message for Latin America,” Belski said.

The Amnesty International representative was confident that if Fernández sends the bill to Congress, it is because he will have the support necessary to approve it.

A recently updated vote tracker by Economía Feminista suggests that there will be difficulties in both chambers to approve the initiative. According to these estimates, out of 257 representatives, there are 95 confirmed supporters and 103 opponents, while it is unknown what 58 members of the House will do.  In the upper chamber, there are 12 senators who would vote in favor and 26 who would oppose, while 34 have not revealed what they will do.

Despite those unfavorable figures, activists hope that the backing of the Executive will be the difference maker, as it was in the 2010 legalization of same-sex marriage, when senators travelled abroad on the week of the debate or did not show up on the day of the vote despite being opponents to the bill, in line with the wishes of the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration.

In 2018, the abortion bill passed the House but failed in the Senate. Then President Mauricio Macri — who said he personally opposed abortion — enabled the debate in Congress but did not push for the bill’s approval.

Cristina Kirchner’s change of mind

Fernández de Kirchner will have to play a key role in gathering the necessary votes from the Senate this time around, as the head of the governing Frente de Todos caucus in the upper chamber, Senator José Mayans, is an active opponent of abortion.

Fernández de Kirchner was personally opposed to abortion until not long as well, and did not encourage the debate on decriminalization during her time in charge. During the 2018 debate, however, the current VP and head of the Senate said she changed her mind thanks to her daughter and the Argentine feminist movement — which grew strongly in the country since the mobilizations against femicides in 2015.

If the law were to pass, it is likely that the issue would end up in court because of pro-Church filings. If the case goes to the Supreme Court, it has a good chance of being validated. Its only female member, Elena Highton of Nolasco, said in an interview with Futurock Radio days ago that she was happy with the gender policies implemented by Fernández.