A sea of green enveloped the National Congress building on Wednesday evening, as tens of thousands of activists staged a pañuelazo protest to renew calls for the legalisation of abortion in Argentina.
With government officials briefing that an abortion bill will enter the legislative agenda on March 1, demonstrators are hoping to build momentum for its passage. But among the songs, chants and angry calls for the change, the mood on the streets mirrored President Alberto Fernandez’s own mixed messages on the subject: some hope, some scepticism – and a sense of undeniable urgency.
“We are here to fight for this law to come out this year,” psychologist Antonella D’Alessio told the AFP news agency as she marched. “An unwanted pregnancy is synonymous with torture.”
On the streets around Congress, left-wing organisations like the Socialist Workers’ Movement (MST), pitched scepticism and anger, decrying Fernández’s alleged “ties to the Vatican” and friendliness with Pope Francis. Others, like the musical groups and performers at the event, which included the Las Tesis, Ignacia, Masqueun3, Eruca Sativa, Femigangsta and Paula Maffía, offered a more hopeful tenor.
Yet the demonstrators – summoned to the heart of Buenos Aires by a host of civil organisations and feminist movements for the third annual ‘19F’ march – were all united by their call for women to be granted access to “safe, legal, and free” abortions as soon as possible.
Campaigners are optimistic that 2020 will be their year, less than two years on from a failed attempt. In August 2018, a bill to legalise the procedure in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy was shot down in the more conservative Senate, after clearing the Chamber of Deputies.
Tensions between pro and anti-abortion activists are running high again, and a counter demonstration by the CatholicChurch has been called for March 8, on International Womens’ Day.
Fernández, 60, who took office on December 10, made history during his presidential run, becoming the first candidate to officially and openly support the legalisation of abortion.
Despite some debate within his Frente de Todos coalition over whether to push for decriminalisation or legalisation, all signs now indicate that the administration will present a bill on the issue to Congress at the start of next month, when sessions re-open. Last week, the president confirmed he would miss Uruguayan leader Luis Lacalle Pou’s inauguration on March 1, citing his responsibility to address the Legislature on that same day.
Two significant uncertainties remain: exactly what provisions will be included in the bill, and, given the experiences of 2018, does it have a chance of passing into law?
“As far as we know, information about the project is very in-secret,” Mariela Belski, the executive director of Amnesty International Argentina, told the Times.
Belski confirmed that she had heard March 1 was a potential date for the bill’s presentation, though she noted that Argentina’s debt situation and talks with the International Monetary Fund were more urgent problems for the president.
The human rights campaigner explained that two factors bode well for the bill: that the president’s voters expects him to present it soon, and that Legal and Technical Secretary Vilma Ibarra – a key figure in Fernández’s Cabinet – is in charge of the bill.
“Having a president involved in the law is important,” said Belski, differentiating the Peronist’s stance on abortion from that of his predecessor.
“The difference between what [Mauricio] Macri [did] and what Fernández is doing, is that it’s his bill. He doesn’t want to lose. He won’t present the bill if he thinks he is going to lose.”
Amnesty closely tracks legislators’ public comments on abortion from lawmakers in the lower and upper houses, in order to see how many votes are in it. The organisation’s current tally shows a slight edge for the pro-abortion lobby in the Chamber of Deputies with 117 in favour, 108 against, and 32 unclear. The advantage is flipped in the Senate, with 34 in favour, 36 against, and two unknowns — these final two, however, are part of the ruling Frente de Todos coalition.
“In the Kirchner era, the marriage equality numbers looked the same way,” said Belski. That bill passed, she believes, “because the party [in power] wanted it to happen.”
Others see the race as less clear-cut. According to Economía Femini(s)ta – an influential women’s rights organisation dedicated to shedding light on gender inequality through the dissemination of information, statistics, and academic content – there are many more votes still to be defined. They list 102 in favour, 104 against, and 51 as unclear in the lower chamber, with 32 in favour, 36 against, and four unknowns in the Senate.
As early as last week, the Fernández administration was still sending out contradictory messages about whether the government would push for decriminalisation or full legalisation, with Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero implying that an option for the government was the elimination of penalties for abortions.
However, Women, Gender, and Diversity Minister Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta said midweek that the government was preparing a “project to legalise abortion — and not just decriminalisation.”
Provisions and timeframes in particular will be particularly interesting to monitor, says Belski. “I’m sure it won’t be a completely open process, I don’t think the country is ready for that — but having it legalised is very important.”
Belski noted that, as has been the president’s modus operandi to date, Fernández would likely look for a third option. “What we know is that he doesn’t want green versus blue,” she said, adding that she expects the Frente de Todos leader to include provisions on adoption and other pro-women’s initiatives in the bill to satisfy those on the blue side.
However, finding a “third way” might also have the unintended consequence of not satisfying either side.
“The bill in question must be the bill that currently has parliamentary status and not a bill that may discursively sound good, but that has a lot of problems in the practice of exercising the right,” Candelaria Botto, a coordinator for Economía Femini(s)ta, told the Times.
“The bill should ensure the right of women and girls in our country to access voluntary interruptions of pregnancies, with the necessary information and with resources provided by the state, so that this decision is safe and within the framework recommended by World Health Organisation,” she said.
Within the region, Argentina is often a trailblazer for social issues, said Belski, citing the domino effect in Latin America that followed the 2010 law on marriage equality.
Like the activists who held up their green hankerchiefs on Wednesday night, regional campaigners in the prochoice movement are cheering Argentina on in what could be a huge leap forward for women’s rights.
Passing an abortion bill is “from Amnesty’s perspective, not only critical for the country, but for the region,” agreed Belski.