Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero has confirmed that President Alberto Fernández’s government will be postponing its bill to legalise abortion until 2021.
"If it had not been for the coronavirus pandemic, it would have been debated this year, " explained the official.
President Fernández vowed to legalise abortion during campaigning for last year’s election and committed in his March 1 state-of-the-nation speech that a bill would enter Congress within the following 10 days.
In the ensuing months the government announced more than once that the bill was ready for presentation, despite the coronavirus pandemic, but there was no consensus within the Cabinet, according to reports.
On Monday, Cafiero explained that "although the government’s intention was always clear with respect to abortion," the idea was to debate the bill without restrictions in either Congress or the public arena, with full social participation.
Until the pandemic could be brought under control, the legalisation of abortion could not be a priority for the government, said Cafiero, underlining that this position was supported by Vice-President Cristina Fernández Kirchner, as well as the Cabinet.
On Wednesday, Women, Gender and Diversity Minister Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta said there was a chance the bill could still be sent to Congress this year. "The bill is done," she said, though she said it was "impossible to know" when it would be submitted, calling it a futile exercise in "futurology."
Approximately 350,000 women turn to illegal abortions each year in Argentina, according to Health Ministry estimates. International human rights groups believe the number is much higher. These clandestine procedures are often unsafe and are the leading cause of maternal mortality in the country.
Last Saturday marked the second anniversary of the Senate’s rejection of the abortion bill previously approved by the lower house Chamber of Deputies. The initiative enjoys considerable social support, but is also strongly resisted by pro-life sectors.
News of the postponement prompted discontent among the numerous pro-choice legislators in Congress and on Tuesday, President Fernández sought to soften the blow by assuring that he would send the bill "as soon as he could." He said that within the context of pandemic, the 2021 Budget (due to be submitted next month) and the government’s judicial reform, which has already entered Congress via the Senate, took priority with only four months of the parliamentary year remaining.
Legal and Technical Secretary Vilma Ibarra has said that the bill is "ready," though the president expressed fears that the issue "might serve some to divide society at a time when we have to be united in the face of the pandemic."
In comments to Perfil, Radical lawmaker Josefina Mendoza speculated that the postponement obeyed an electoral strategy of seeking to cash in on the youth vote with the bill in next year’s midterms.
"I still think the same, that it [abortion] is a right and rights cannot wait. The government has expressed itself in favour but afterwards says that it is not an urgency and introduces this issue of judicial reform," she added.
Campaigners for abortion reform in Argentina have vowed to keep up the pressure. Over the past week, there has also been a strong social media campaign using the hashtag #AbortoLegal2020, pressing for the bill to be sent to lawmakers.
There has also been surprise in the ranks of the Civic Coalition-ARI where back in 2018, Juan Manuel López was the sole voice in favour of the reform while his nine party colleagues under the leadership of the staunchly Catholic Elisa "Lilita" Carrió voted against. New caucus chief Maximiliano Ferraro, however, has said he favours legalisation, as do at least three other deputies of the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition partner.
Nicolás Del Caño, representing the leftist Frente de Izquierda, dismissed cost arguments in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Linking the non-presentation of the bill to legalise abortion with the burden on the health system ignores the impact of unsafe abortions on that system, giving the idea that women’s health is less important or less urgent," Del Caño told Perfil. “Ending clandestine abortions does not pressure the health system.”
At least one opposition deputy accepted the delay.
"Legal, safe and free abortion is a debate we owe ourselves but in this context I don’t think it’s right to discuss,” said PRO deputy María Luján Rey, who entered Congress last year after her caucus voted 35-17 against the 2018 reform. “According to my understanding, it requires sessions with the deputies present to permit all voices to be heard. I have no doubt that the time will come to settle this debt but that time is not now."
Rey thus aligns herself with the recent opposition strategy of rejecting the continuity of remote sessions in favour of having deputies present, especially for issues requiring in-depth treatment like judicial reform.
Her party colleague Adriana Cáceres underlined that "it is necessary that the government send as soon as possible the bill to legalise abortion because it is a question of human rights.”
“To continue postponing its discussion would mark a setback," she added, contrasting this with the advance of the ILE protocol for the legal interruption of pregnancy in Buenos Aires City. “If the political will exists, there are no barriers for responding to women’s agenda."