It’s hard to believe that nearly two weeks have gone by since Argentina’s Lower House voted to pass the bill legalizing abortion, a momentous step that represented the culmination of years of campaigning by the Campaña nacional por el Derecho al aborto legal, seguro y gratuito (National Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion in Argentina) and associated groups. The optimism and positivity that this has generated have proven to be contagious, spreading to neighboring countries in Latin America as pro-choice movements harness the result in Argentina to demand similar change from their own governments.
Latin American countries on the whole have profoundly conservative legislation on abortion. In certain countries, such as El Salvador and Honduras, the regulation of abortions is so draconian that women often receive long prison sentences for suffering a miscarriage, if it is judged to have been intentional. The law in Argentina, as it currently stands, allows abortion in certain medical cases and if the pregnancy is the result of rape. However, this looks set to change with the bill to decriminalize and legalize abortion which, though tabled seven times since 2007, was finally debated and passed in the Lower House in the early hours of June 14. Now that Argentina is embracing change, how likely is it that neighboring countries will follow its lead?
— Marcos (@theoldmark) June 18, 2018
There is a certain temptation, especially from an international perspective, to group Latin American countries together as one mass. As a continent with a largely shared language and a similar history in terms of colonialism, independence, and tumultuous twentieth-century politics, this perspective tends to gloss over the particularities of each nation, in terms of both politics and society. For example, much was made of the so-called ‘Pink Tide’, the perceived ideological shift toward socialism and away from neoliberalism across the continent, in the early twenty-first century. The legacy of this political movement is still very much up for debate, but the phrase ‘pink tide’ demonstrates a certain propensity to rely on sweeping generalizations to describe a continent that defies easy characterization. And in the wake of the abortion vote in Argentina, it seems that once again, international voices are itching to describe national changes as an international phenomenon.
It could be overly optimistic to see the victory of the abortion bill in Argentina as a touch paper for greater change. First, while the debate and the passing of the bill in the Lower House was a historic moment that represented a significant evolution in mentalities, at times it seems like media coverage has somewhat jumped the gun. The bill is yet to become law, and faces an uphill challenge in the coming months as it is debated in the considerably less liberal Senate. Furthermore, even should the bill achieve the unlikely and pass through Senate and reach President Mauricio Macri’s desk, implementation will be a whole other story, particularly in the conservative, Catholic provinces such as those in the northwestern region of the country.
Furthermore, if we look at the recent history of the liberalization of social policies across Latin America, it’s fairly difficult to discuss extensive pan-continental trends. Argentina was a trailblazer when it became the first country in the region to legalize same-sex marriage back in 2010. While three other countries – Uruguay, Brazil, and Colombia – have followed suit, this has hardly enacted change across the whole of Latin America. Likewise, Uruguay legalized abortion in 2012, but this was a standalone action that did not cause significant change in political discourse in neighboring countries. Is it conceited, therefore, to proclaim that Argentina’s success will influence other countries in ways that Uruguay couldn’t?
However, what we saw in Argentina was a mass mobilization unlike anything experienced by Uruguay, piggy-backing off the success and cultural impact of the #NiUnaMenos movement. While the two movements are entirely separate entities – indeed, one of #NiUnaMenos’s leaders pronounced herself firmly against the bill – #NiUnaMenos paved the way and broke the culture of silence, exhorting men and women to take to the streets and demand change. The campaign to legalize abortion owes much to #NiUnaMenos, in terms of tactics but also in that it sparked a dialogue that both included and promoted women and their rights, opening the door to the first serious consideration of the bill to legalize abortion.
#NiUnaMenos was born in a context of enhanced social mobilization in South America and spread quickly from Argentina, fostering the creation of similar movements in countries such as Peru and Chile. In Argentina, this created lasting social change, bringing women’s rights out of the shadows and onto the political terrain. It follows, then, that the same must have happened in countries that have welcomed the movement, as it has lent visibility to issues and concerns that were previously unknown and ignored. In that sense, the existence of campaigns fighting for women’s rights in the popular culture of each nation has laid the foundation for a serious discussion of abortion in these countries.
— Lu (@luocon_) June 24, 2018
Additionally, the pro-choice movement in Argentina was supremely visual, with the pañuelo verde becoming its icon, a subtle and discreet way to demonstrate support for the campaign. In day-to-day life, you could see the pañuelos tied to handbags and rucksacks, and at demonstrations, protestors would turn out bedecked in all shades of green, becoming an emerald sea demanding the right to choose. The use of color was a savvy act of symbolism which made the pro-choice debate ever-present in the eyes of the Argentine people, exerting constant pressure on deputies to make a change. Whether this ‘green tide’ is the new Pink Tide remains to be seen, but pro-choice movements in other countries have wised on to the immense power of the visual, with each country adopting its own color of pañuelos to create a similarly striking visual impact.
Rather than the ‘marea verde’ described by the press, by choosing their own colors, each country’s budding pro-choice campaign has identified itself as different, acknowledging these distinct political and social contexts. Instead of an all-encompassing uniform movement, we can see individual groups, sister charters supporting each other as they each strive to achieve what just a few years ago would have been the impossible. This ‘arcoiris feminista‘ has created something that almost resembles a feminist Wiphala, a rainbow-hued celebration of pan-continental activism.
This strong visual impact was compounded by the fact that we live in the age of social media. The images of this ‘green tide’ could be seen across every platform: green popped up in emoticons and in banners, and on the day of the vote people turned their Instagram profile pictures green, unleashing the verdant sea across the digital world too. Pro-choice hashtags utterly dominated Twitter in Argentina, as users demanded #AbortoLegalYa. Directly after the vote, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts were opened in various countries across Latin America as movements capitalized on the success of their Argentine sisters to pursue similar results at home. Social media is already awash with artwork depicting the international response, emulating many of the successful tactics of the Argentine campaign and creating a movement deeply-rooted in popular culture and social media.
What we can see is that the National Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion in Argentina has galvanized the efforts of its sister movements across Latin America, laying out a model of behavior and tactics that will no doubt be emulated in these countries. The result in Argentina has ignited a regional sisterhood that recognizes differences but has united for this common cause. While the bill is yet to be made law in Argentina, it has become so prevalent in popular culture that should it be defeated, it surely won’t go quietly.
Sure, Uruguay’s legalization of abortion did not inspire mass mobilization across the continent, but the fact that the positive result in Argentina was so closely linked with the pro-choice movement meant that for many, it was a concrete example of popular protest enacting tangible change. Even if the process of completely legalizing abortion in Latin America is a long one, the existence of these groups and the way that they will support each other means that what was once a ‘national’ matter has taken on international scope. It’s not so much a question of if abortion will be legalized, as when. And these groups will be there every step of the way.