As advocates on both sides of the debate gather around throughout the country—plastic fetus-wielding pro-lifers and pro-choice groups carrying their iconic green scarves alike—the tension throughout the country ahead of the Lower House vote to decriminalize abortion is palpable. No matter the outcome, this historic moment carries great significance: it represents a tangible action on part of the government to respond to the gradual shift in dialogue surrounding women’s autonomy over their bodies.
Safe and legal abortion is only part of the broader conversation regarding women’s reproductive rights, and this vote signals a readiness among government officials to proceed in having the discussion. Access to contraception, emergency contraception, and comprehensive sexual education are also part of it. In making the decision about when to have children, women in Argentina have more birth control options and easier access to these options than many women in Latin America.
For example, emergency contraception is available over-the-counter and covered by the public health system; birth control pills can be purchased without a prescription; condoms are available for free all around Buenos Aires. Although Argentina boasts a decent standard of contraceptive health care, thanks to various legislation initiatives like the 2002 National Law on Sexual Health and Responsible Procreation and a 2003 provision introducing free contraception, political action does not always result in a tangible change in public opinion.
In April 2005, the government launched an information campaign through TV, radio, and press aimed at declaring women’s access to contraception as a right. However, that same year a report published by Human Rights Watch outlined obstacles that Argentine women face regarding abortion and contraception, outlining concrete areas for improvement. Many of these barriers were cited as a result of inadequate or improper implementation of the law on the part of public health officials.
On top of that, Human Rights Watch identified various policies that “contribute to an underlying sense among service providers that birth control and reproductive health care are somehow illegitimate, immoral, or even illegal”. Many of these problems still exist, such as long delays, demands for ‘spousal permission,’ and a doctor’s personal or religious beliefs being grounds to deny treatment.
In 2016, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) released a report offering policy recommendations for the Argentine government. It points out a recurring theme, that legislation aimed at reproductive rights is often not enforced equally throughout the country. For example, in an Infobae interview this week, 17-year-old high school student Sofia Zibecchi remarks about the sexual education she and her classmates receive, “What there is doesn’t come from the State, but from militancy and private interests.” The Law of Comprehensive Sex Education was passed in 2006 with the intention of standardizing public information about reproductive health.
Inconsistencies in application of the law are also a result of a blurred separation between church and state. For example, last week in Jujuy, a private high school required students to participate in an exposition called “The Human Face of Abortion,” an openly pro-life event barring students from wearing green scarves. Critics called the event an example of one-sided indoctrination, while the school maintains it was an educational even with data from the UCA (Catholic University of Argentina) Department of Medicine. This is just one of many instances where Catholic education has come into conflict with the secular standard, showing how difficult it is to bridge the divide between changing social norms and traditional religious values.
Although the bill going up for a vote today does not address the issue of access to contraceptives or sex education, it certainly amplifies the discussion about women’s bodily autonomy. The topic of abortion has arrived to the dinner table of every home, marking a shift in the national attitude and loosening of the cultural norms that render it “taboo” to discuss women’s sexual health and contribute to the spotty implementation of the country’s “progressive” reproductive rights laws.
Policy nuances aside, this momentous vote solidifies Argentina’s position as one of the vanguards for women’s rights in Latin America. The #NiUnaMenos slogan, which has become the brazen rallying-cry of the women’s movement across Latin America, emerged just over three years ago right here in Buenos Aires. Activists across the region co-opted the slogan, creating a cross-continental campaign calling for an end to femicide and gender-based violence that is now the focus of countless marches, youth-trendy merchandise, and even songs. As safe, legal abortion is one of the main platforms of the #NiUnaMenos movement, the mere existence of a vote to decriminalize abortion up to 14 weeks gestation is indicative of a once fringe opinion becoming mainstream.
Following Ireland’s recent repeal of its 8th constitutional amendment it is clear that this vote is part of a larger international shift in public consciousness. Worldwide change is being made, and Argentina is carving out a spot in the history books. Regardless of the results of the abortion reform bill in Congress, many pro-choice activists have said that abortion has already been decriminalized by society. Whether legislators choose to reflect this social change in the law, be it now or later, will not stop the tide from shifting.
Want to keep a closer eye on this week’s abortion vote? Find out how.
For information about how you can access reproductive healthcare in Buenos Aires, check out The Bubble’s guide.