Buenos Aires Times

argentina 'NO' VOTE PREVAILS

Argentina's abortion debate exposes contradiction, confusion among senators

What happened in the Senate was an alternation of arguments which lukewarmly justified the voting process itself, with expressions that seemed improper for a legislative body.

Thursday 9 August, 2018
Former president-cum-Senator Carlos Menem is surrounded by his Senate colleagues during the 2018 abortion decriminalisation vote.
Former president-cum-Senator Carlos Menem is surrounded by his Senate colleagues during the 2018 abortion decriminalisation vote. Foto:Noticias Argentinas

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As was expected, Argentina's Senate voted against the decriminalistion of elective abortion.

Today, women in Argentina have the same rights they have always had. The green handkerchiefs seized the streets but the blue ones won over the Senate.

The bill arrived to the Senate following its passage through the Lower House, the outcome of previous negotiations between government offices and an attempt on the part of the Executive branch to exercise its power.

In a step forward, the government acted in spite of the rejection of the provinces and faced off against the conservatism of the Catholic and evangelical churches, which were much more active in August than they were in June during the Lower House vote.

'NO' FROM THE GET-GO

The session began at 10.30am on Wednesday, as a security operation stopped many Lower House lawmakers and distinguished members of civil society, like Mothers of Plaza de Mayo-Founding Line member Nora Cortiñas, from accessing the Senate and its viewing chamber.

From the outset, the no vote had the advantage. Rioja province Senator Carlos Menem made sure he was present for the debate. The former president voted against the bill. Menem has skipped 81 percent of Senate sitting times.

Senators' arguments against the bill centred on a number of key points but also included references to Juan B. Justo and Julio A. Roca, fascist ideological persecution and other 20th century horrors. All the while, those same Senators complained that "the necessary kind of debate" was not taking place.

Few arguments prior to the vote sought to convince undecided senators, one way or the other. But even if there had been such attempts, for the most part of the marathon session there was a notorious absence of Senators sitting in their chairs. In other words, senators had little or no participation in the debate prior to their own vote.

Some spoke about surgical abortion, despite the bill proposing pharmaceutical abortion. Almost none spoke about the maximum number of weeks of a pregnancy in which the proposed law would have allowed abortions to take place.

What happened in the Senate was an alternation of arguments which lukewarmly justified the voting process itself, with expressions that seemed improper for a legislative body. Some UCR Radical Party members even excused themselves for their no vote, citing their previous request for a plebiscite having been rejected.

GAFFS, CONFUSION, CONTRADICTIONS

Rodolfo Urtubey (Justicialst Party, Salta province) was the victim of his own confusion. "Rape is clear in its definition, though we would need to look at some cases because there are some in which rape has no aspect of violence against the woman", he said. He later tried to correct himself on Twitter.

More concialtory was Senator Esteban Bullrich (PRO Party, Buenos Aires provinces) who mixed together the ideas of General Juan Domingo Perón with those of the Bible. "There is no difference between the concepts of 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself' and 'There is nothing better for an Argentine than another Argentine'", he claimed.

Scientific "convention differentiates humans from the recent of the planet's mammals. Despite sharing 99 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, we do not resolve our disputes like chimpanzees", Bullrich added.

"We know there are women who make the tragic decision to abort. But without maternity, we have no future. Abortion is a social failure. Maternity should never be considered a problem", he lamented.

Weeks ago, in committee hearings, Bullrich spoke of the need for greater sex education in schools, despite the Integrated Sexual Education Law (passed in 2006) having not yet been properly implemented across the country. Bullrich was Education minister from 2015 to 2017.

For her part, Cristina López Valverde (Justicialista Party, San Juan province) expressed her insecurity about the prospect of voting for the bill because she had not yet had time to analyse it. Social media users had a field day with the senator, with some calling for her resignation. She later tried to explain herself in a press release. Her references to José Ortega y Gasset and Hannah Arendt went largely unnoticed.

Hours later, Senator Silvina García Larraburu (FpV, Río Negro province) justified her last-minute backflip against the bill. She had been a staunch proponent of legal abortion. "The influence of (Jaime) Durán Barba, with the cynicism that characterises him and that bastard-like way of doing politics, has created a smoke-screen effect at the most inopportune time", she said, referring to President Mauricio Macri's communication guru, whom she argued forced the current abortion debate in Congress in order to cover up the government's mistakes in other areas.

Toward the end of the night, José Mayans (Justicialist Party, Formosa province) argued against "safe, legal, free, obligatory abortion". "It can not be", he urged. Before voting on a bill about reproductive health, the Senator called for public policies to end poverty. He has been a Senator since 2001. His current term ends in 2023.

Mayans also had time to remember The Beatles with "a song from he '60s that said: 'Déjalo ser' (Let It Be)". Those in the chamber looked at the Senator with surprise, while Senate speaker Gabriela Michetti looked on with a clear expression of annoyance.

But it was not Gabriela Michetti's lowest moment, nor was it the most surprising. Hours earlier she took aim at her coalition colleague Luis Naidenoff, saying "you idiot, stop being a pain in the ass", a phrase caught by her microphone. At other moments of the night, she argued with senators over their inability to limit themselves to assigned speaking times.

Senator Maurice Closs offered the Senate "the thoughts of Misiones province". "I am not in favour of gratuity [free abortions in public hospitals] but I do want a State which is present", he said, adding that the supposed collapse of public health in Argentina would be worsened by the arrival of patients wanting abortions. "It cannot be", he said, while calling for more public policies. Closs was governor of Misiones from 2007 to 2015 and a Lower House lawmaker from 2015 to 2017.

NOT YET, NOT SOON

Only in 2019 will Congress have its next opportunity to vote on a bill to legalise or decriminalise elective abortion. If a bill enters the Senate, it will be subject to the will of the same group of people who on Wednesday rejected it, since most senators' mandates end between 2019 and 2023.

Next year, it is estimated that there will be a further 350,000 clandestine abortions in Argentina. Despite the will of people on the streets, there is a long way to go before this reality changes.

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