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Will abortion be legalized this year in Argentina?

Last-minute changes negotiated yesterday looked to secure votes from provinces

By | [email protected] | December 10, 2020 12:01am

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After legalizing divorce in 1987 and gay marriage in 2010, Argentina could now be on the verge of making abortion permissible as well, with the House of Representatives opening the floor for what is expected to be a day-long discussion today, and the Senate also likely to vote before the New Year.

The pro-choice camp in Argentina has already been close to achieving legalization before, but its last attempt in 2018 ended with a narrow defeat, so the result should not be taken for granted.

This time, however, the bill has the weight of the Executive Branch behind it, negotiating with on-the-fence lawmakers behind the scenes to secure its approval, while activists are accepting last-minute tweaks to the text with regards to conscientious objectors to bring more legislators on board as well.

A feminist wave

Despite the narrow defeat in 2018, the fact that a project proposing the full legalization of abortion during the first trimester of gestation got that far was already a big cultural landmark in a country that has been historically closer to pro-life positions.

Initiatives to legalize abortion usually never made it past committee meetings or the collection of a few prominent signatures in support of it. That began to change in 2015, when feminist causes started gaining strong traction in Argentine public opinion.

The “Ni Una Menos” (“Not one less”) campaign focused on highlighting violence against women and demanding state action against it resonated in wider circles than similar causes used to. Feminist rallies started to become massive in large swathes of the country, and the Women’s National Summit (ENM), held once-a-year in different cities across the country since 1986, turned into massively-attended gatherings.

By 2017, feminism was among the top topics in the Argentine agenda, only losing some room when the country’s financial collapse began the year after. With the country already in turmoil and under an IMF rescue program, then-president Mauricio Macri tried to change the tone of the conversation by sending a bill to discuss abortion in Congress despite declaring he was a pro-life person himself.

The strong momentum of the feminist movement and a generally growing pro-choice sentiment in society meant that Buenos Aires City was swarmed with women wearing green scarfs and bandanas, representing their support for legalization while Congress was getting ready to vote.

Green vs Blue

On the day the House voted, the police divided Argentina’s Congressional Plaza into two sectors, one for the green, pro-choice supporters of the bill and the other for those against it, who had now adopted Argentina’s sky-blue in response.

The difference was stark: the green half was not only full, but supporters continued to sprawl in the dozens of blocks around it, while the other side of the plaza barely had a couple thousand objecting legalization. The bill cleared the House after sunrise, and the greens that camped through the night near Congress broke out in a mass-scale street celebration.

But that wouldn’t last for long: by the time the Senate voted, the pro-life blue scarves were better organized, with Catholic and Evangelical support across the country adding steam to the protests and lobbying for the rejection of the bill.

By its nature, the Senate is a much more hostile place for pro-choice bills, given the smaller representation of big cities in it, and so the recovery of “blue” momentum in the streets coincided with the ultimate defeat of the bill in the congressional upper chamber.

All in all, the margins were very thin in 2018, with the abortion bill clearing the House by 129 votes to 125 and falling short in the Senate by 38 votes versus 31.

A Green president

Despite the defeat, the 2018 vote in the Senate brought a crucial piece of news. Then-Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a former pro-life supporter, voted yes on legalization, saying Peronism should be “national, popular, democratic and now also feminist”.

In her book Sinceramente…, the current VP explained her reasoning: “I thought I would be an 80-year-old woman in 15 years and my granddaughters Helenita and María Emilia would be in high-school, and her friends would ask them ‘How did your grandmother vote?’ And I don’t want them to say ‘that old hag voted against it’. I don’t want to leave a bad memory for my granddaughters.”

Fernández de Kirchner was basically seeing that political representation for the new generation had to include these topics in the agenda. And her pick for the presidential ticket, Alberto Fernández, had always been on the pro-choice side of the argument, so in that sense he was also a good fit.

Once elected, President Fernández always emphasized the feminist cause, knowing this would strengthen his militant base in a context in which there wouldn’t be a lot of good news on offer for them given the harsh economic context. Even though pro-life Peronists are not insignificant, especially in the country’s Northern provinces, pushing forward with a second attempt to legalize abortion right from the start of his government always made sense to him.

The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, hit the top government decision-makers on the same week that the bill was supposed to hit Congress back in March. Cases, however, have now been going down for a couple of months with the help of the hotter summer weather, so Fernández wants to take advantage of the current window of opportunity to turn the bill into law before any new problem hits.

Last minute negotiations

In the last committee meeting before the bill hits the House floor today, the lawmakers promoting the bill accepted a few changes to the text originally sent by the Executive, with the goal of minimizing the chances of a 2018 repeat.

Governors, always working hand-in-hand with their provinces’ Senators, were demanding that the possibility of refusing to perform an abortion should be extended not only to individual doctors but also to entire institutions if no willing medical professional was available in them. If that is the case, the new text says, the institution should refer the patient to another clinic so that the procedure still takes place.

Other changes in the protocols to deal with under-aged women with no parents were also introduced.

Sources at the Government House say they are confident this will be enough for the bill to clear the House and the Senate. In feminist circles, approval in the House tonight is seen as secure, but they still don’t want to celebrate early with regards to the Senate.

The debate in the floor is expected to start at 11 AM Argentine time, with Speaker of the House Sergio Massa saying he expects only 7 minutes allotted to each speaker in order to finish before sunrise tomorrow.