If such an existentially fundamental issue as abortion should never hang in the balance as the toss of a coin, the total lack of suspense surrounding Thursday’s foregone conclusion was hardly a improvement. Perhaps the senators thought that they were paying homage to the importance of the issue by dedicating so many hours of debate to it (or perhaps it was only their own self-importance, in many cases) but neither the rights of unborn life or women over their bodies need that amount of verbiage to explain. Numerous well-researched reports and studies on the issue are available and (despite the claims of one lawmaker who seemingly claimed not to have read the bill), yet at times the lamest of arguments filled the vacuum in the upper house.
Some of the senators’ speeches were baffling. To cite just a handful of small examples, we had insane explanations of the “components” of rape and why there were different types, the irrelevant citing of famous composers and the declaration that “without life” there would be no Senate. But to waste any more words deploring the quality of the debate would simply be to repeat the offence. The real question is where do we go from here? The government, if reports are true, thinks the next step is modifying Argentina’s Criminal Code and that is at least one step in the right direction, yet before looking ahead, it might also be worth looking back – could things have been done differently? For example, some of the defeated bill’s most fervent advocates might well be asking how six dozen overpaid and underworked legislators can arrogate the right to frustrate the popular will as expressed by its representatives in the Chamber of Deputies, questioning the very existence of the Senate (akin to the House of Lords in Britain).
But this is the wrong question. Sometimes patronising attitudes of a modern and progressive mindset toward the less-developed provinces overrepresented in the Upper House (where three-eighths of the population command 60 of the 72 senators) merely feed the backlash – Donald Trump and Brexit illustrate the dangers of ignoring opinion beyond the centres of power. Instead of removing the federalist leg of Congress, the alternatives should have been contemplated. As mentioned in these pages before, a referendum is a good way to decide this issue. Despite the idea being so abruptly ruled out by the government in the immediate wake of the Senate vote, Ireland’s own public consultation illustrated the extent of support for the legal abortion in country with a strongly Catholic identity, as is the case in Argentina. Another option would be a Supreme Court ruling (after all, if Argentina’s Constitution is modelled on the United States, abortion there was defined by Roe versus Wade in 1973, not by any Congress vote or White House decision).
But it is far more important to look ahead at this stage because Thursday’s vote by no means closes off debate – on the contrary, the issue has been firmly installed in the public mind and the abortion problem is now a reality for everybody, even those who are convinced that the cure is worse than the disease. The hundreds of thousands on the streets this week illustrate how sooner or later abortion will be legalised and rather than deploring the delay, the time should be used to broaden the areas of consensus and improve the legislation because clarity is still lacking both in points of detail and even the central question. Thus not only did aspects such as state funding and conscientious objection split the advocates of abortion within the Senate.
What strikes this newspaper as perhaps saddest of all is the fact that Argentina is now left with the status quo, legislation that dates back to 1921, almost a century ago. This is unacceptable and a failure, not just of this government, but of the ones that have passed before it. For the green camp, this defeat should be no reason for despair in the abortion campaign because sooner or later they will prevail. But when that day comes, the prolife ranks should not consider their cause ended either. Society would become less human if not constantly reminded of an unborn life which is not just a religious dogma but scientifically demonstrable. Their cause will be no less valid when it is no longer the law of the land but they should also understand that it should not have to depend on being the law of the land. Yet for the time being it is.