On Wednesday 8th August, Argentina did not legalise abortion. They did not put a stop to illegal abortions and save countless lives. They did not distinguish themselves from the majority of Latin America that criminalises abortion.
After months of considerations, following one final 16-hour debate, 38 Argentinian senators voted for the absolute rejection of a bill to make abortion legal. Abortion is currently illegal in Argentina except when the life of the mother is endangered or the pregnancy comes from a rape or attack committed on a mentally impaired woman. Official figures from the Ministry of Health reveal that in the country of 44 million people, 500,000 illegal abortions are performed each year whereby even when successful, the lack of post-abortion care can lead to over 50,000 women becoming hospitalised each year following the procedure. Latin America itself is the second most dangerous region in the world after Africa for terminating a pregnancy, with over 75% of abortions being performed in unsafe and illegal conditions. The proposed bill would have legalised abortion within the first fourteen weeks of pregnancy. It would have permitted free abortion in public and private hospitals, allowing a waiting period of five days and requiring counselling and treatment both before and after the procedure.
Numerous arguments were raised ranging from the conservation of embryos to the costs of surgical abortions being too high. Notably, the previous minister of education Esteban Bullrich along with numerous other senators viewed legalising abortion as inauspicious due to the ‘high’ cost and inconvenience of it. Medication that induces an abortion, such as misoprostol, however, is affordable as it does not require surgery. The most shocking argument was made by Senator Rodolfo Urtubey who suggested that intrafamily rape does not constitute violence - later claiming that he was ‘misinterpreted’ following mass criticism.
The bill gained weight in Argentina following the reinvigoration of feminist moment #NiUnaMenos, meaning ‘Not One Less’ or ‘Not One More Death’, since 2015 with thousands of women mobilising across the country. Pro-choice promoters strategically linked themselves to the movement, framing the debate as being about violence and using language of public health. They constructed a symbol - an emerald green handkerchief, nicknaming the movement the ‘green wave’ - a symbol that has permeated other Latin American countries such as Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica. #NiUnaMenos nullified the secrecy, the stigma and the shame surrounding abortion in Argentina in the face of achieving change.
Despite this, Argentina is a largely conservative and Catholic country currently undergoing a period of conservative control by the leading conservative party PRO. A countercampaign was organised - #SalvemosLasDosVidas (Save the Two Lives) - largely by the catholic community that had great influence over the political debate.
Argentina have had numerous problems leading up to this, including the peso falling in value; surging inflation; illegal campaign financing in President Mauricio Macri’s political coalition Cambiemos; and the alleged corruption surrounding former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and bribery. Fernandez will face questioning in court on Monday 13th August. The added negative attention this will bring to the nation is not likely to improve the economic situation, with economists expecting Argentina to fall into a brief recession later this year.
So what happens now?
This bill shows a detachment from the reality whereby last year thousands of women died from complications caused by clandestine abortions. This was not a debate on whether abortions can happen, but on whether abortions should continue to be life-threatening for those that must endure them. Amnesty International’s secretary general described the continued criminalisation of abortion as compromising Latin America’s progress on human rights. Change is now inevitable as women have transcended the negative perceptions placed upon them and the idea of legalising abortion can no longer be kept quiet. Despite the strong influence of the Catholic Church in the region with 59% of Latin Americans identifying as Catholic with the birthplace of Pope Francis in Argentina, it is proven that this does not always have to be so limiting: 78% of Irish people identify as Catholic yet in May, one of Europe’s last abortion bans was defeated there. Although this is not as great a step as it had the potential to be, this is still an important development in the quest for women’s rights in Argentina.