Argentina: Legalized Abortion Demonstrates Feminists’ Hard-Won Clout

By Cora Fernández Anderson*

March for Safe Abortion in Argentina/ International Women’s Health Coalition/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Argentine approval of legal abortion – signed into law by President Alberto Fernández on January 14 – validates activists’ claim that women’s rights are never simply granted; they must be fought for. Fifteen years after the launch of the Campaign for Safe, Free and Legal Abortion in Argentina, the Senate voted 38-29 to legalize abortion until 14 weeks. The Lower Chamber approved the measure on December 11 by a vote of 131-117. On December 30, after Senate approval, the streets of Buenos Aires filled with green – symbol of the movement – and demonstrators’ tears and joy, hugs and chants overwhelmed the scene. Feminist leaders proclaimed, “It is a day that we imagined and dreamed of many times.”

  • A strong abortion rights movement was essential to placing the issue on the national agenda and raising awareness about it. The influence of the Catholic Church, coupled with the stigma around abortion nestled in the identification of womanhood with motherhood, had created a strong barrier to any policy change. (Argentina is the home country of Pope Francis.)
  • Until very recently, most politicians, whether from the right or the left, perceived abortion reform as politically costly – a risky issue commonly referred in Argentine slang as pianta-votos – something that makes votes “escape.” Through decades of intense work, the movement showed politicians that society has changed, that new generations have different priorities, and that it is possible to win elections advocating for legal abortion. President Fernández promised to support the initiative in his campaign and he delivered.

Abortion in Argentina used to be ruled by the 1921 Criminal Code, which said it was legal only when the life or health of the woman was at risk and in cases of rape. For most of the 20th century, this regulation was not challenged, and – because the wealthy could afford the necessary certifications and medically safe abortions – class divides had deadly implications: Those with limited resources risked their lives and health in attempts to interrupt their pregnancies.

  • Only after the transition to democracy in 1983 were feminists able to promote debate on the need to legalize abortion. Led by mostly middle-class professional women, early initiatives were very small and did not have much political impact at the time. In 2001, however, protests over political and economic crises toppled the government and sparked a wave of activism that included creation of the Assembly for the Right to Abortion. This built a cross-class alliance that gave the movement a strong foothold – leading, on May 28, 2005, to launch of the Campaign credited with driving last month’s historic bill. The movement’s iconic green pañuelo – emblazoned with the main slogan, “Sexual education to decide; contraception so as not to have an abortion; legal abortion so as not to die” – became ubiquitous.

The campaign’s success can be attributed to the growth of a broader feminist movement, which shifted some public focus onto women’s realities. For example, the increase in the number of femicides inspired the movement ‘Ni una menos’ (Not one less), a grassroots collective fighting to put an end to violence against women. Recent efforts framed criminalization of abortion as another example of violence against women, making the state responsible for their inaction in the face of preventable deaths.

  • In addition to proving that it was possible to win a presidential election on a platform to legalize abortion, the Argentine campaign has inspired and given renewed hope to activists across Latin America – like those in Colombia awaiting the decision of the Constitutional Court on a case that might lead to the decriminalization. Women in Chile, who in 2017 won a few exceptions to the total ban on abortion, are now pushing harder to remove that legacy of the Pinochet years. This past week, the Chilean Parliament began to discuss a bill that would legalize abortion until 14 weeks in line with the law recently passed in Argentina.
  • The fight is not over even in Argentina, however, because opponents want the law declared unconstitutional and many doctors want to be conscientious objectors. But the movement is aware of the challenges and is ready for the fight. Indeed, feminists are not resting on their laurels. The movement will play an important role in monitoring the implementation of the law and disseminating accurate information about it so as to make abortion access a reality across the country.

January 28, 2021

* Cora Fernández Anderson is Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of Fighting for Abortion Rights in Latin America. Social Movements, State Allies and Institutions. Portions of this analysis appeared here in Ms. Magazine.

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