Advocates for free, legal and safe abortion in Argentina – and campaigners across the continent – this week vowed to keep up the pressure on lawmakers and continue their fight to end clandestine abortions, despite the defeat of bill to legalise the procedure this week in the Senate.
The sponsors of the legislation, which passed the lower house Chamber of Deputies in June, also said they were considering new routes toward decriminalising abortion, as the fall-out from Thursday’s marathon-length session in the upper chamber settled. NGOs too said they would continue to press lawmakers and the government on the issue.
In an interview with the Times, Amnesty International’s Lucila Galkin said senators had missed “an historic opportunity” by deciding to reject the legislation, though she said the NGO was “hopeful that sooner or later this will become a reality.”
Declaring “there is no going back,” Galkin, Amnesty’s local coordinator of human rights and youth education, said the tide had turned.
“There will be more campaigns, more political science and more litigation: there are many ways in which we will channel our efforts. The vote was a setback but sooner or later we will prevail,” she said.
Cambiemos (Let’s Change) lawmaker Daniel Lipovetzky, who was in charge of the debate in the Chamber of Deputies, said the government should call a referendum, in wake of the heavy turnout by the green ‘prochoice’ camp on the streets.
“We propose a binding referendum, which is a mechanism provided for in the Constitution, which is a matter for the legislative branch, not for the Executive,” Lipovetzky said.
Just hours earlier, Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña had ruled out the chances of a holding a public consultation on the issue, saying “we do not believe that a referendum is an option, parliamentary debate was chosen.”
Local reports, however, said the government might move to decriminalise abortions following the wave of demonstrations by feminist groups that helped to push the legislation before Congress.
According to a survey carried out by the University of San Andrés in July, 28 percent of citizens strongly agreed with moves to legalise abortion. Seventeen percent said they “somewhat agree,” with 13 percent disagreeing and 36 percent strongly against.
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.
The issue has bitterly divided Argentines, pitting conservative doctors and the Roman Catholic Church against feminist groups and medical professionals.
According to estimates from NGOs, around 500,000 clandestine abortions are carried out in Argentina each year and approximately a hundred women die each year. Activists estimate 3,030 women have died of illegal abortions since 1983.
GREEN V BLUE
Senators debated for more than 15 hours on Wednesday and Thursday before voting 38- 31 in the early hours against the measure, which would have allowed abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. There were two abstentions and one lawmaker was absent.
Anti-abortion campaigners and religious groups celebrated blocking the legislation, which had already passed the lower house Chamber of Deputies in June. The Catholic Church and others, including some physicians groups, had strongly opposed the legislation, arguing it would violate the Constitution.
“It’s not about religious beliefs but about a humanitarian reason,” Cardinal Mario Poli, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, told churchgoers at a “Mass for Life” held Wednesday night during the Senate debate. “Caring for life is the first human right and the duty of the state.”
Pope Francis this year denounced abortion as the “white glove” equivalent of the Nazi-era eugenics programme and urged families “to accept the children that God gives them.”
Despite the loss, the grassroots movement behind the legislation remained upbeat as the week closed, after coming closer than ever to expanding women’s reproductive rights.
“We were sad that abortion will continue to be clandestine in Argentina and will produce more deaths, but we left happy and proud of the fight that we’re carrying through,” said Marina Cardelli, a member of the Feminist Wave group. “We won because we looked at each other eye-to-eye and we realized how strong we are, and that abortion will eventually be legal.”
President Mauricio Macri, who had promised to sign the legislation if it passed Congress even though he has stated he is “in favour of life,” said after the vote that the debate would continue.
“We’ve shown that we have matured as a society, and that we can debate with the depth and seriousness that all Argentines expected ... and democracy won,” Macri said.
A legalisation bill cannot be debated again until the next legislative year, but Macri’s government is expected to include a provision to decriminalise abortion on August 21 when it overhauls the penal code. Although that would not legalise the practice, it is seen as a compromise solution.
In recent years, Argentina has been at the forefront of social movements in the region. In 2010, it became the first country in Latin America to legalise same-sex marriage. More recently, the Ni Una Menos movement highlighting violence against women has grown into a global phenomenon.
“Fortunately, women are gaining spaces and we’ve been learning from those spaces that they’re demanding,” said Gustavo Bayley, a tattoo artist wearing the abortion movement’s green handkerchief on his arm. “It’s the beginning of revolutions.”
The National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, one of the main groups behind the battle to tackle clandestine abortions, has not yet announced what its strategy will be, but reperesentatives for the group said Wednesday night that the battle was not over.
“If it is not law now, it will be next year. We are going to continue fighting,” declared one the group’s representatives, lawyer Nelly Minyersky, at a press conference.
Arguments from the debate
After a marathon, historic, late-night session in the National Congress, the Senate voted early Thursday morning to reject a bill to legalise elective abortion up until the 14th week of pregnancy.
The news came as little surprise to most. 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.”
“I am saying this to the girls that are outside: this is a monumental triumph,” countered Senator Fernando ‘Pino’ Solanas (Proyecto Sur-BA City) in his speech. “They have managed to introduce a fundamental debate! They did it. Let no-one get carried away by the culture of defeat. To the millions of women who mobilised: no-one can stop the wave of new generations. It will be today or tomorrow, but it will be,”
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.”
Silvina García Larraburu (FpV-Río Negro) attacked the government in her speech: “This debate has been flawed and we have been thrown into it in the worst conditions ... duranbarbismo has generated a phenomenal smokescreen.”
Pamela Verasay (Cambiemos-Mendoza), in favour, said simply: “There are no abortions if there is a law, we need the law because there are abortions.”
“Let’s recognise that we’re facing a public health tragedy because 3,030 women ,who have died, is a tragedy,” said Magdalena Odarda, a senator for Rio Negro province. “We’re not deciding abortion yes or now. We’re deciding on abortion in a hospital, or illegal abortion, with a clothes hanger, or anything else that puts a woman in a humiliating, degrading situation – it’s torture.”