President Alberto Fernández is on the verge of pressing the green button. The Peronist leader is preparing his government to send a bill to allow the voluntary interruption of pregnancy to Argentina’s lower house Chamber of Deputies before the end of the year. Inside Congress, however, the countdown has already begun.
In the clearest sign yet that the start of the landmark debate is imminent – there is speculation the bill could enter Congress as early as next week – Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa has scheduled meetings with representatives from both sides of the issue at the National Legislature.
The Frente Renovador leader, a key figure in the ruling coalition, is due to meet this week with activists from the Campaña por el Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito (“Campaign for the Legal, Safe and Free Abortion”) and figures from the “pro-life” camp, at the request of lawmaker Vanesa Massetani (Frente de Todos, Santa Fe Province).
According to reports, the briefings will discuss the “rules of the game” and the bill’s likely deadlines. Sources, cited by the Noticias Argentinas news agency on Tuesday, say the Tigre leader does not want to leave anything to chance.
Speaking on behalf of the pro-legalisation campaigners this week, activist Jenny Durán told the news agency that there is an “urgent” need for the legislation.
"We will raise our point of view with Massa,” said Durán, a member of the Campaña por el Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito.
“We believe that [the bill’s] approval is urgent. During the pandemic unsafe abortions have been performed and we have knowledge of three women who have died in recent times. We want an expeditious, serious treatment, without low blows.
“The debate in 2018 made society aware of the cruelty of the penalty. We cannot wait. We want it to be dealt with as soon as possible.”
Sources linked to Unidad Provida (Pro-life unity”), which groups together 150 organisations who oppose legalisation, also confirmed Tuesday that the meeting had been brokered by Massetani, a Santa Fe lawmaker who is part of Massa’s party.
While the ‘blue’ camp believes the deputy’s closeness to Massa could benefit them, they understand that attempts to ensure lawmakers vote against the bill are likely to be more fruitful in the opposition’s ranks.
Though President Fernández has hinted heavily this week that the bill’s arrival in Congress is imminent, any doubts that it may be further delayed thanks to the coronavirus pandemic look to have been put to bed by confirmation of Massa’s meetings.
The bill is expected to come to a vote sooner than in 2018, when debate lasted three months. Within the ruling 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.
In addition, the end of the year is rapidly approaching; objectively, there is less available time in the calendar. Though the government did consider postponing the legalisation bid again given the effects of Covid-19, pressure within the ruling coalition to deliver a key campaign promise has been strong.
The final text of the bill is being still worked on by a number of Cabinet officials, with Women, Gender and Diversity Minister Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta and Legal and Technical Secretary Vilma Ibarra key to those discussions.
Earlier this week, Fernández said the government was “finishing work” on the bill.
"We are working on that. It is a campaign promise, and I promise to keep them," he said, adding that it would be paired with a bill that would provide assistance to pregnant women in vulnerable situations for “the first 1,000 days” of a child’s life.
"I don't want this theme to become another dispute among Argentines. We respect everyone, I don't want this to generate a new debate," he added.
Sources from the pro-life camp say the second bill is a “clear strategy” to lower tensions.
“The Church has already let go of his hand. He wants to fulfil the promise to the radicalised sectors [of his coalition]," an unnamed figure from the movement told NA.
On both sides of the debate, researchers are attempting to size up how the votes will fall.
According to a member of the pro-reform National Campaign 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 will not be able to count on the Executive staying neutral, as former president Mauricio Macri did either.
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.
President Fernández has started the ball rolling, stirring up the militant activists on both sides of the divide. Pro-reform campaigners this week began leaving messages at the doors of Congress, all with the same simple message: “Our bill is urgent.”
What lies ahead promises to be a tough and gruelling battle, with an outcome that remains hard to forecast.
– TIMES/NA [with reporting by Sebastián Hadida]