Argentina became one of just a handful of Latin American countries to allow elective abortion on Thursday, as feminist campaigners celebrated the end of a decades-long fight for safe and legal access to terminations.
To applause from gathered government officials and abortion activists, President Alberto Fernández on Thursday signed a bill into law that allows abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.
The legislation was approved by the Senate on December 30, having earlier passed the lower house Chamber of Deputies.
"Today we have a better, more equal society," said Fernández, as he headed an event at the Bicentennial Museum next to the Casa Rosada. "This is a great step towards equal rights, giving women the possibility to decide."
The Frente de Todos leader praised activists, hailing the moment as "the culmination of a long struggle" waged by those wanting an end to abortion being "a crime that obliges secrecy and exposure to the risks involved" in backstreet procedures.
The government estimates that since 1983 more than 3,000 women have died from clandestine procedures. The Health Ministry estimates that more than 370,000 secret abortions are carried out each year in Argentina, a country of 44 million.
"This was done by all of us,” said Fernández, hailing the law as "a campaign promise fulfilled."
He warned, however, that Argentina now needed to deliver “serious sexual education everywhere to prevent unwanted pregnancies."
In Argentina, terminations were previously allowed only if the pregnancy was the result of rape or endangered the woman's life.
Between 2012 and 2020, more than 1,500 court cases were brought for abortions, according to the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS).
The reform "represents the state's understanding what reproductive autonomy signifies to women," said María Teresa Bosio, the president of a group of Catholics in favour of the right to choose.
Law 27.610 allows for healthcare professionals to express conscientious objection, but states that the abortion must be provided free of charge within 10 days of a request.
Fernández also promulgated a 1,000-day guarantee that women will receive state aid during pregnancy and for their child's first three years.
"There will be a state behind [women] that will give them healthcare and guarantees so that their child can grow and develop," said Fernández.
Legal & Technical Secretary Vilma Ibarra, who has long campaigned for abortion reform and who helped to draw up the bill’s text, was visibly moved as the bill was signed into law.
“The State answered [abortion] with jail. Now we have changed this paradigm and the State is going to receive women and treat them with dignity and respect," she said as her voice broke with emotion.
Activists with the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito (“Natoinal Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion”), one of the groups that have led the fight for reform, celebrated the passage of the bill into law with a communication to its supporters titled “We did it.”
Campaign groups warned this week though that enforcing compliance with the norm is the next challenge, with the law likely to face legal challenges in the courts and its guarantees likely to meet with resistance in some private health clinics and centres, especially in the northern provinces, which are traditionally more conservative.
Argentina’s Congress approved abortion reform last month, backed by women's rights proponents, despite strong opposition from Evangelical Christians and traditional Roman Catholics and disapproval voiced by Pope Francis.
As a result, Argentina becomes the largest of just four Latin American countries where women can choose to have an abortion, joining Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana. In Mexico, terminations are allowed only in the state of Oaxaca and in Mexico City.
The region has some of the world's most restrictive abortion laws. In El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, the procedure is banned, and women can be sent to jail even for having a miscarriage.
Campaigners are confident however that Argentina’s move to legalise the procedure will have a wider impact across Latin America.
“We know there will be a lot of resistance in the rest of Latin America, especially from the Catholic church and other churches,” Women, Gender & Diversity Minister Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta said in an interview with UK newspaper The Guardian this week.
“The regional conquest will take some time, but I have been getting calls from officials in Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. Progressive governments are returning to power in some countries, I am very confident there will be a change,” she told journalist Uki Goñi.
On Wednesday, women in Santiago took to the streets to demand access to abortion as debate opened in Chile's Congress on a bill seeking to allow elective abortion until 14 weeks of pregnancy. The protesters sported green neck scarves like the ones worn by their counterparts in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America rallying for women's reproductive rights.
Chile also currently restricts abortion to cases of rape or when a woman's life is endangered, along with unviability of the foetus. Until as recently as 2017, the country banned the procedure outright.
“The legalisation of abortion in Argentina will have an effect across the whole region,” Gómez Alcorta told The Guardian. “We will paint Latin America green.”