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The Abortion Debate Starts Tomorrow. What Should We Expect?

By | [email protected] | July 2, 2018 7:05pm

Screen Shot 2018-07-02 at 3.08.07 PMAbortion-rights activists gathering outside the Argentine Congress via NYTimes, Credit Eitan Abramovich/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On June 13th, the lower house of Argentina’s congress voted Yes on a bill to allow women in Argentina to access safe, legal abortion within the first fourteen weeks of gestation. Now, the bill passes to the Senate, which will ultimately decide its fate. With debate getting underway tomorrow, the final vote has been officially scheduled for August 8th.

The bill, which would include access to abortion in the free public health system, also emphasizes that sexual and reproductive rights are key human rights, and should be recognized as such. In addition to decriminalizing abortion, the bill also calls for changes in the education, health, security, and justice systems, pushing for improved universal access to sexual and reproductive health education in the Argentine public school system. Additionally, the bill would require expanded access to free contraception.

Pro-choice activists gather outside the Argentine Congress, June 2018 via Violeta Bullrich, @commedesphoto

An excerpt from the bill reads as follows: “States [in Argentina] must take necessary measures to eliminate conditions and combat attitudes that perpetuate gender inequality and discrimination; there is an obligation to ensure universal access to quality sexual and reproductive healthcare, maternal healthcare, information [on these topics], contraception, and safe abortion.”

In the introduction, the bill emphasizes its three key measures in one sentence: “Sex education to decide, contraceptives to prevent abortion, legal abortion to not die.”

As of now, there are 35 senators against the bill, 26 in favor, and 11 that are undecided or abstaining from sharing their vote.

Pro-choice activists gather outside the Argentine Congress, June 2018 via Violeta Bullrich, @commedesphoto

Who’s in Favor?

Activists: The bill has energized thousands of Argentine women and women’s rights activists, thousands of which crowded the streets around Congress during the 23-hour debate last month. Many of these activists are also part of the #NiUnaMenos feminist movement, which seeks to combat gender discrimination, including gender-based violence and femicides, in Argentina.

Although attitudes vary sharply depending on geography, a nationwide survey conducted this year by the National University of General San Martín reports that roughly 55 percent of Argentines favor access to safe and legal abortion.

Pro-choice activists gather outside the Argentine Congress, June 2018 via Violeta Bullrich, @commedesphoto

Congressman Daniel Lipovetzky:
Part of President Macri’s coalition, he has been vocal in his support of abortion rights, and will lead the coming debate in the Senate. On June 2, 2018, he critiqued Vice President Gabriela Michetti for stating that she opposes abortion even in cases of rape, emphasizing her comments on the issue as “a huge setback.”

An unlikely coalition: A number of lawmakers, considered by many to be unlikely allies, have joined forces in supporting legalized abortion. They include leftist Victoria Donda, Romina del Plá from the Argentine Workers’ Party, ally of the center-left former presidency Mónica Macha, and Brenda Austin, part of President Macri’s center-right coalition.

Mónica Macha has stated: “Although we have lots of political differences, we also have a profound agreement on this issue.”

2017 pro-choice march in Buenos Aires, via Telám

Who’s Against?

The President: President Mauricio Macri opposes legalizing abortion, identifying himself as a pro-life candidate, but has stated that he supports a free and fruitful debate and will not veto the bill if it passes through the Senate and reaches his desk.

In his annual speech before Congress on March 1st, Macri stated: “I’m pro-life, but I’m also in favor of the mature and responsible debates that we owe ourselves as Argentines.”

Vice President Gabriela Michetti: In addition to being against same-sex marriage, Michetti has been vocally against abortion throughout her political career, in spite of participating in the June 3rd anti-femicide march organized by #NiUnaMenos. On July 1st, she emphasized that she did not believe abortion should be legal even in the case of rape, leading many politicians and activists alike to critique her views.

She has stated: “Personally, I’m in favor of always defending life. I believe in an active State that is present in preventing unwanted pregnancies and accompanying women in need of assistance to raise their children.”

The Catholic Church: Powerful religious leaders in Argentina, including Pope Francis, have been vocally opposed to the bill. Even though they have previously been against improved sexual and reproductive education in the public school system, they have now began to emphasize this strategy as a better alternative to abortion. However, they are still largely against the idea of greater access to free contraceptives, especially in schools.

Pro-life activists: In addition to pro-choice activists, a number of anti-abortionists have also began to mobilize and protest, gathering outside Congress during the debate. A notorious anti-abortion advocate is La loca del bebito,” or “Crazy Baby Lady,” famous for carrying around a tiny fetus-shaped figurine in protest and encouraging others to do so as well.

Pro-life counter protester outside of Congress, June 2018, via Violeta Bullrich, @commedesphoto

Main Points of Debate

In the debate, which starts tomorrow, some likely contenders for discussion will include the constitutionality of abortion, the monetary cost to the state of free and legal abortion as part of the public healthcare system, the issue of legalization versus decriminalization, the maximum weeks of gestation for abortion, the age at which one would be allowed to access abortion, and issues of parental consent in cases of minors seeking abortion.

At the same time, another likely point of discussion will be the topic of religious and “conscientious” objection, specifically what to do in the case of healthcare practitioners who personally oppose the issue if Argentina ultimately legalizes abortion.

What’s the Current Outlook?

While the bill’s victory in Congress was already a surprise, its passing in the more conservative Senate looks even less rosy.

In the case of Congress, the bill seemed doomed to fail before a last-minute change in alliances, ultimately passing by only four votes. Activists hope for a similar upset in the Senate.

While many predict that the Senate’s conservative outlook will not allow the bill to pass, it would also be foolish to discount public opinion, as polls have consistently shown that a majority of Argentines favor legalization. This is especially true for younger Argentines, who are beginning to participate in the political process and represent the next generation of the country’s voters. Both of these factors places significant pressure on the Senate to vote in favor of the bill.

Another important factor to take into consideration is that, while some members of the Senate might be abstaining from sharing their vote with the public or are stating that they will vote against the bill, it is a distinct possibility that they are are doing so to escape public pressure and scrutiny ahead of the vote. This was the case with a number of politicians in Congress, who—to avoid critique in the days leading up to the heated debate— claimed to be against the bill but later shifted their vote in favor.

Pro-choice activists gather outside the Argentine Congress during the long debate, June 2018 via Violeta Bullrich, @commedesphoto

With 35 senators saying that they will vote against, 26 in favor, and 11 refusing to share,
some are pessimistic about the outlook, while others point to the undecided votes as a good sign for the pro-choice side.

While as of now there is no way to predict a winning side with full certainty, what is known is that a passing bill would be a huge step for Argentina and Latin America as a whole. In Argentina, it is estimated that over 500,000 clandestine abortions occur secretly in unsafe and unsanitary conditions each year, putting clandestine abortions—according to Amnesty International—as the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the country.

Meanwhile, only 3 percent of women in Latin America and the Caribbean have access to safe, elective abortion. If the Argentine Senate decides to pass the bill, August 8th would be a momentous day for women’s rights not just in Argentina, but across the region.