Buenos Aires Times

argentina LOWER HOUSE VOTE

Campaigners hold breath as vote on abortion nears

On Wednesday, lawmakers in the Lower House will cast their vote on landmark legislation that would legalise abortion up until 14 weeks without prior authorisation.

Saturday 9 June, 2018
Pro-choice activists demonstrate, calling for the approval of a bill that would legalise abortion.
Pro-choice activists demonstrate, calling for the approval of a bill that would legalise abortion. Foto:AP/NATACHA PISARENKO

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This Wednesday, June 13, Congress will hold a historic vote in its Lower House on whether to introduce a new law to legalise elective abortion without judicial authorisation in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

For the past two months, 15 public hearings have seen over 700 presentations in four separate Lower House committees. With just a few days left, almost 30 lawmakers have remained silent over which side they come down or are openly undecided about their vote — a number that could potentially tip the scale. Across the country, activists and organisations are making their voices heard, with green (pro-choice) and blue (pro-life) colouring streets across the nation.

“We are very happy, excited and energised by the green wave: we feel, believe and think that we have already won,” prominent Lifeguard Network (Socorristas En Red) activist Belén Grosso told the Times.

Grosso helped establish the group in 2011, which accompanies those who decide to have abortions through the difficult process with support, information and events such as group therapy.

“There are women today that try to induce abortions with knitting needles, stems of parsley, tubes, drinking litres of coffee and aspirin — it’s unbelievable that this keeps happening,” she said. “Having a law doesn’t guarantee its enforcement, but it’s a floor to stand on, not the roof of what we can achieve. We’ll start with conquering that right for all people with gestation capabilities and go from there.”

Currently, abortions can be carried out legally by a medical practitioner only in cases where the mother’s health is in danger or the pregnancy was a result of sexual violence on a women with mental disabilities (a 2012 Supreme Court ruling extended this to all victims of sexual assault).

“The issue with the current legislation is that doctors are not held accountable and the health system is exclusive and violent, especially toward women in poverty with less access to healthcare,” philosopher and bioethicist Dr. Laura Belli told the Times in an interview.

Dr. Belli took part in the committee presentations, making the case for legalising on abortion from the public health perspective.

An Amnesty International report puts the number of abortion-related hospitalisations at 49,000 a year. According to the Health Ministry, 17.6 percent of all maternal deaths in 2016 were due to unsafe abortions and have been the primary cause of maternal deaths since the return of democracy — 3,030 women have died due to abortions from 1983 to 2016. An estimated 450,000 clandestine abortions are carried out in Argentina every year, mostly in unhygienic and unsafe environments, according to a study by Silvia Mario and Edith Pantelides for the Health Ministry.

LONG CAMPAIGN

For some pro-choice campaigners, the vote has been a long time coming. Campaigners with the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion (Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal Seguro y Gratuito) presented seven bills to legalise abortion over the course of 11 years: the latest carried the signature of 71 government and opposition lawmakers. This unity has made pro-choice activists optimistic about the passage of the bill, but there are reservations when it comes to the Senate, where many have shown vehement opposition to the legislation.

Proposed modifications to the bill are also a concern: first, the introduction of a conscientious objection clause, meaning that doctors could refuse to carry out the procedure. Second, patients between 13 and 16 may have to be authorised by an adult family member: this could be particularly problematic when taking into account the large numbers of adolescent pregnancies that arise due to sexual assault by family members.

“If pushing the ‘best’ bill through meant that it would be rejected, it’s better to modify and negotiate. If it doesn’t go through, they’ll present it again,” argues Dr. Belli.

However, modifications are not seen by everyone as a way to close the gap: “A pro-lifer [sic] will inevitably say that even if they’re 15 and accompanied by their parents, abortion kills anyway,” the national coordinator of the March For Life (Marcha Por La Vida) Alejandro Geyer told the Times.

“I told Congress, ‘If you pass this bill, people won’t vote for you anymore.’ Nobody had mentioned abortion during their campaigns except some leftist parties: people take to the streets because they feel betrayed.”

The March For Life is an international movement that seeks to reverse abortion legislation: there have been two marches this year. In addition, 414,000 signatures were presented in Congress on Tuesday by citizens who oppose the bill. Geyer outlined that their alternative is a law to protect and assist women economically to bring the baby to term, but he was hesitant in showing optimism over the outcome of Wednesday’s vote.

NO GOING BACK

The intense participation of campaigners on both sides of the debate has indicated the depth of feeling on the issue.

There have been marches across the country in recent months, with many planned over the next week: both prochoice and pro-life activists are set to be in front of Congress during the vote. Geyer told the Times that pro-choice organisations are set to camp out there as from Tuesday night.

“Since the debate began, the huge reaction has been very important as people became interested and formed an opinion on either side. On one of our marches, there were people rallying in over 200 cities: some I had never heard of, but it’s significant.”

For both sides, this is perhaps the biggest achievement.

“It’s very important that it’s been debated and sides have been taken because there’s no going back, whatever happens: it’s come out of the dark with arguments, numbers and perspectives we’d never seen before,” said Dr. Belli.

Despite this, Geyer was adamant about the morality of the issue: “If I messed up, if I didn’t take care of myself or if I was raped, the baby shouldn’t have to pay with their life. I believe that we didn’t need this debate right now, there are much more important social and economic issues to address.”

For Grosso, however, it’s more than principles: “If we just thought about the complexity of abortion, listened to those that go through it and understood that no woman undergoes an abortion happily, that it’s not easy for anyone to make that decision — I think there’s a way to move away from that dichotomy that’s done us a lot of harm.”

Across the divide over abortion, there is a shared surprise about the level of activism and participation; consensus on the importance of debate and agreement on the traumatic impact of abortion. And above all, both sides share a determination to continue spreading their message, with both green and blue scarves, no matter how the vote goes.

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