Buenos Aires Times

argentina SENATORS REJECT BILL

Abortion reform bill fails to pass Argentina's Senate

After a marathon, historic session in the Senate, a bill to allow elective abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy has failed to pass Argentina's upper house. Incredible scenes outside the chamber as hundreds of thousands of protesters brave bad weather took to streets.

Thursday 9 August, 2018
In this photo released by the Senate press office, protesters demonstrate in support of loosening the abortion law, left, and against abortion, right, in this photo taken from Congress.
In this photo released by the Senate press office, protesters demonstrate in support of loosening the abortion law, left, and against abortion, right, in this photo taken from Congress. Foto:SENATE PRESS OFFICE

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After a marathon, historic, late-night session in the National Congress, the Senate has voted to reject a bill to legalise elective abortion up until the 14th week of pregnancy.

The final vote count, just before 3am, in Argentina's upper house was 38 votes against, 31 in favour and two abstentions. One lawmaker, who is heavily pregnant, was absent.

The news came as little surprise, despite a high-stakes, often emotional and draining debate in Argentina's upper house that dragged into the early hours of the morning. Several senators earlier this week had turned their back on the legislation in its current form, stating they would not approve the bill. 

Nonetheless, lawmakers delivered impassioned speeches, with many using lengthy statements to declare their convictions.

Senator Esteban Bullrich (Buenos Aires Province-Cambiemos) argued: "There are women who take the tragic decision to have an abortion, [but] it's not a failure of that woman, it's a failure of our society. This bill, which is bad, does not aim to reduce abortion, but it legalises this failure."

Senator Mario Fiad (Jujuy-UCR) said abortion was a "tragedy" in his speech, a word echoed by many legislators who were against the legislation, arguing its introduction would be "unconstitutional."

For her part, Beatriz Mirkin (Tucumán-Justicialista) said: "We have to expand possibilities, not restrict them. The bill does not oblige any woman to abort ... it forces the State to do what must be done so that there are no clandestine abortions."  

As well as attempting to score some political points, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, now a senator representing Buenos Aires Province, used her speech to explain why she had changed her mind on the issue. The former president, who led the country for two terms, previously blocked bills on the issue reaching Congress when leading Argentina.

The dramatic scenes inside the Legislature were matched by incredible scenes on the streets. Outside, as lawmakers argued and exchanged views, hundreds of thousands of protesters braved bad weather to flood the streets.

Despite the projections and strong opposition from the highly influential Catholic Church in the homeland of Pope Francis, pro-choice campaigners held hope until the last minute.

"We're doing everything so that the initiative passes. We have faith in the street movement," leading campaigner Julia Martino said in the hours prior to the vote.

Split

Argentina now allows abortion only in cases of rape, if the foetus is disabled or for risks to a woman's health. Activists say 3,000 women have died of illegal abortions since 1983. Opponents, meanwhile, insist life begins at conception and complain the bill could force doctors to perform the procedure even when they believe it is hazardous.

The issue has bitterly divided Argentines, pitting conservative doctors and the Roman Catholic Church against feminist groups and medical professionals.

In large part, the Senate vote was split on geographical grounds with most northern province senators voting against the bill. Voting patterns also highlighted the lack of unity on the issue of abortion with many of Argentina's political parties and coalitions.

Controversial moments were often, with the most shocking statements quickly shared on social media. Illustrating how the debate had raised tensions, even among coalitions, Vice-President Gabriella Michetti, leading the chamber, was overheard on microphone calling Cambiemos Senator Luis Naidenoff a "pelotudo" and telling him not to "break balls."

Even those outside the chamber got involved. Speaking on a radio interview Wednesday evening, while explaining she was "seriously against" the project to legalise abortion, Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal said she was claimed that "the voices of poor women were not [being] heard in Congress."

Earlier in the day, she had given her first interview on the subject, during which she said she would be "relieved" if the project failed in the Senate. 

Despite the loss for the pro-choice camp, many believe a bid to reform legislation on abortion will see another day in Congress, sometime soon, perhaps even as early as in the next legislative year.

"If it doesn't happen now, I am convinced that it will have a second opportunity. Because social movements are unstoppable. Abortion is a reality that one cannot ignore," Health Minister Adolfo Rubinstein said, speaking prior to the vote.

National agenda

In recent months, the debate on abortion reform has seized the national agenda and Wednesday was no exception. Huge crowds swarmed into the streets surrounding the national Congress building in Buenos Aires ahead of the vote, with some arriving as early as Tuesday.

Taking security precautions, Federal and City Police officers split the Plaza del Congreso in two, putting anti-abortion activists on one side and pro-choice supporters on the other.

Green pro-abortion campaigners created a carnival atmosphere, seeking to persuade lawmakers to grant approval for the bill for free, safe and legal abortion with chants, singing and drumming. The rival light-blue pro-life camp, which held its own rallies and displayed its famed oversize constructed foetus, also came out in large numbers.

Abortion activists had called for two million demonstrators to take to the streets and masses of protesters turned out to take part in the two rival demonstrations, despite the rain and fierce wind that swept through the nation's capital throughout the evening. Exact numbers were impossible to ascertain, but the green camp's turnout looked to be significantly higher, although many pro-life demonstrators had travelled long distances from provinces to the capital for the vote.

Satellite demonstrations also took place outside a range of Argentine embassies and consulates around the world, including in Bolivia, Mexico and Peru.

International attention

In recent days, international human rights and women's groups around the world had shown they had been following the vote, and figures such as US actress Susan Sarandon and Canadian author Margaret Atwood indicated their public support for the pro-abortion cause in Argentina in tweets and posts on social media sites.

José Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, said Argentina had arrived at a "historic opportunity" to protect the rights of women. Amnesty International has told Argentine legislators that "the world is watching" in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times.

Currently, abortion is allowed in Argentina in the three aforementioned cases, which is a similar state of affairs to most of Latin America. It's also legal in Mexico City while only in the Central American trio of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua does it remain totally banned.

-TIMES/AFP/AP

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