Congress opened debate on the government’s abortion bill on Tuesday, with President Alberto Fernández hoping to legalise the process in Argentina by the end of the year.
The lower house Chamber of Deputies opened debate at committee stage, with the chamber’s leaders hoping to have a vote on the proposed legislation by December 10. If approved, the bill would go to the Senate immediately, which would debate it in committee stage and on the floor during extraordinary sessions in December, as scheduled.
Most political analysts believe the government’s proposal has the support it needs in the lower house, though its fate is uncertain when it comes to the Senate, which is traditionally more conservative.
Already a regional pioneer when it comes to gay marriage and gender identity, Argentina would join the likes of Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and Mexico City in the region if it legalised elective abortion.
"I am confident that this time it [the bill] will be approved. There is a very strong change because in 2018 we did not have the support of the Executive. I am very hopeful. There will be no problems in Deputies," said Nelly Minyersky, one of the founders of the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal Seguro y Gratuito (National Campaign for the Right of Legal, Safe and Free Abortion), an alliance of more than 300 feminist groups, set up more than 15 years ago.
Despite multiple legislative efforts to legalise abortion, only once, in 2018, has a bill ever reached the floor of Congress, when it passed the lower house but was rejected in the Senate. This is the first time that a bill to legalise the voluntary interruption of pregnancy (IVE) has been backed by the Executive.
Minyersky, a 91-year-old feminist lawyer, is one of 10 individuals who will speak to lawmakers asking for them to back the “green” pro-choice vote. Another 10 will speak in favour of “light blue” camp which rejects the bill.
Green vs light blue
Activism on both sides is stepping up. Thousands of demonstrators, led by Catholic and Evangelical churches and civil organisations, protested outside Congress last weekend to oppose the government’s bill. Those in favour called for a mass social media campaign on Tuesday to build momentum for the legislative push.
"We do not want more deaths or girls forced into pregnancies," is one of the rallying signs of the green camp, which in 2018 mobilised hundreds of thousands of women to take the streets. This time around, given the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, they are calling on supporters to make their voices heard online.
"It is time to guarantee access to health for all girls, women and pregnant people," Amnesty International Argentina said in a post on Twitter on Tuesday.
Inside Congress, lawmakers and officials were also starting to make their case.
"The Executive has taken a decision to make the enormous problem that we have with clandestine abortions visible," Legal and Technical Secretary of the Presidency, Vilma Ibarra, one of the authors of the bill, told lawmakers.
She warned that "the policy of criminalisation of abortion has failed,” saying that “threatening women with jail in the face of the decision to interrupt a pregnancy" was wrong. She said the aim was not to “promote abortion” but to “reduce” it.
An estimated 370,000 to 520,000 clandestine abortions are carried out in Argentina every year, Ibarra recently said. The Ministry of Health estimates that there are 39,000 hospitalisations each year due to complications in clandestine practices.
Health Minister Ginés González García and Women, Gender and Diversity Minister Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta also addressed lawmakers on Tuesday, with the former describing the seriousness of the problem and arguing that “a cause of death is eliminated” should the bill become law.
The minister estimated that there are currently “1,100 to 1,200 abortions and hospital admissions" daily due to clandestine procedures, backing up his claim with data from the Health Ministry.
For the anti-reform camp, which is dominated by Argentina’s powerful religious groups, the move to legalise abortion is not only an unwise decision, it is badly timed.
"The Argentine people are pro-life. Now we will see what the legislators do, if they respond to the president or to the people," said one activist, who asked to remain nameless, at last weekend’s march.
In a sign of the pressure on lawmakers, in recent days religious groups have staged demos outside the homes of deputies who have said they will back the bill. The Chamber of Deputies, in response, has formed a legal group to guarantee “the freedom of each legislator to express his opinion."
"Those who call themselves 'pro-life' are the violent, they are anti-rights. We want to expand rights [to people]," criticised Minyersky.
Upon submitting his bill to Congress on November 17, Fernández said that he wanted to guarantee "that all women [in Argentina] have access to the right to comprehensive health."
The text of the bill authorises abortion "until week 14 of gestation," while it also includes a key section that allows “conscientious objection" from healthcare professionals, though those opposed must "refer the patient to be treated" immediately, whether in the public or private health systems.
The government has also submitted another bill that will create a ‘1,000 day plan’ to strengthen existing support and care measures for women during pregnancy and in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. The aim is to ensure that no individual is forced to abort due to their economic circumstances.
Abortion is currently legal in Argentina only in the cases of rape or danger to the pregnant woman’s life.