President Alberto Fernández said Tuesday that his government had sent a bill to legalise abortion in Argentina to Congress, firing the starting gun on what is likely to be another epic legislative showdown.
In a video message posted on social networks, the Peronist leader said that Argentina had to deal with “the dilemma” before it and face up to the reality that unsafe clandestine abortions that were being “performed in hiding.” He said he sought to guarantee that “all women have access to the right to comprehensive healthcare."
Fernández – wearing a green tie, the colour of the pro-abortion rights movement – said he was delivering on a promise he made while campaigning for the presidency in 2019. He vowed to push for legalisation in March, during an address to the nation, but those plans were put on hold when the country went into lockdown over the coronavirus.
"It was always my commitment that the State accompany all pregnant people in their maternity and take care of the life and health of those who decide to interrupt their pregnancy. The State must not ignore any of these realities," he stressed.
The president said that his bill to legalise the Legal Interruption of Pregnancy (ILE) would be accompanied by a second that would create a ‘Thousand Days Programme’ to “strengthen comprehensive care” for women and their children for the first years of their life. The intention is to help poorer families to avoid having to resort to abortion for economic reasons.
The scheme would establish a support programme to reduce "mortality, undernourishment and malnutrition," prevent "violence" and protect early relationships, and guarantee child support payments during pregnancy, birth and the first three years of a child's life.
“My conviction, which I have always expressed publicly, is that the State accompanies all pregnant people in their projects of maternity. But I am also convinced that it is the responsibility of the State to take care of the life and health of those who decide to interrupt their pregnancy during the first moments of its development.”
The president’s announcement was greeted by huge cheers from pro-government activists outside Congress, who had gathered Tuesday as debate on a one-off capital levy on Argentina’s wealthiest citizens got underway. The so-called ‘Wealth Tax’ will take funds from more than 9,000 individuals for use subsidising the health system, which is under great strain amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
More than 1.3 million people have been infected with the novel coronavirus in Argentina, with more than 35,000 fatalities.
This will be the second time in two years that lawmakers will vote on whether to legalise abortion. In 2018, against a backdrop of mass demonstrations by campaigners on both sides of the debate, the lower house Chamber of Deputies approved a bill to legalise procedures in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, only for the more conservative Senate to subsequently reject it.
While timetables for the new bill are unclear at present, it is expected to come to a vote sooner than two years ago, when debate lasted three months. Both laws are expected to be dealt with in extraordinary sessions beginning after November 30.
Within the ruling Frente de Todos coalition they believe the issue was discussed exhaustively two years ago, while the coronavirus pandemic (and the complications that come with remote sessions) means long public hearings – as well as massive demonstrations outside Congress by both the blue and green camps – are unfeasible.
Argentina is deeply divided on the issue. In his speech, Fernández argued that the two bills he would send to Congress were not an attempt to solve the abortion issue, but rather an attempt to tackle the reality that exists in Argentina today.
“The debate is not saying yes or no to abortion. Abortions occur clandestinely and put the health and lives of the women who undergo them at risk,” he said. “The dilemma that we must overcome is whether abortions are practiced clandestinely or through the Argentine health system.”
He argued that criminalising abortion unfairly punishes “vulnerable and poor women,” describing them as “the greatest victims” of Argentina’s legal system.
“The criminalisation of abortion has been of no use” the president argued. “It has only allowed abortions to occur clandestinely in troubling numbers.
“Every year around 38,000 women are hospitalised for abortions and since the recovery of democracy, more than 3,000 women have died from this cause.”
Abortion is only currently allowed in the event of rape or danger to the pregnant woman's life. The legislation that has been in place since the 1920s. Those found guilty of carrying out illegal abortions can be punished with up to four years in jail.
In a recent interview, Legal & Technical Secretary Vilmar Ibarra – one of the officials who worked on the bill – quoted estimates that around 370,000 and 520,000 clandestine abortions take place in Argentina every year.
Campaign groups welcomed Tuesday’s news, with Mariela Belski, the executive director of Amnesty International Argentina, saying in a statement that activist groups were responsible for this potentially momentous legislative breakthrough.
"The activism and the unwavering struggle of the women's movement has achieved this historic advance: today abortion is a central and urgent issue of the political agenda," she said.
Given Tuesday’s announcement, all eyes now will turn to Congress, with researchers already attempting to size up how the votes will fall.
According to a recent report from the pro-reform Campaña por el Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito (“Campaign for the Legal, Safe and Free Abortion”) movement, the green camp has the numbers in the lower house.
The support of around 120 lawmakers is likely to be necessary and they estimate 127 or 128 votes will be cast in favour, with 109 or 110 against.
For the blue camp, they agree the Chamber of Deputies is likely to back the bill, as it did in 2018. This time around, they are unable to count on the Executive staying neutral, as former president Mauricio Macri did.
However, the anti-abortion camp is putting its faith in the Senate, where the numbers remain unclear, with the fate of at least four votes unknown.
Hoping to calm tensions before they escalate, Fernández called on the nation to maintain civility.
“I ask you, as the president of all Argentine men and women, that we maintain respect for those who think differently from our own. Differences make us a plural society and enrich the democracy that it took us so much effort to consolidate,” he said.
Religious groups, led by the Catholic Church and evangelical groups, said the legislative effort was inappropriately timed, given the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
"The general situation of public health makes any attempt to present and discuss a law of these characteristics untenable and inappropriate," the Argentine Synod said.
The Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches echoed those words, warning that the bill’s entry into Congress "will provoke demonstrations" on both sides.
"It is not the time to discuss abortion, we are in the middle of a pandemic," the group said.
What lies ahead promises to be a tough and gruelling battle, with an outcome that remains hard to forecast.