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ARGENTINA | 26-12-2020 10:57

Senate prepares for Tuesday’s historic abortion bill vote

Government-backed bill clears committee stage, but its fate remains uncertain. Spotlight falls on handful of senators who could sway its approval.

Senators will hold an extraordinary session on Tuesday, during which they will decide whether to approve the government’s bill to legalise abortion.

Argentina’s upper house gave the green light, so to speak, to the initiative by approving it at committee stage, thus clearing it for debate on the chamber’s floor next Tuesday. 

The day promises to be historic, but despite the progress, nobody in the ruling coalition’s camp is taking the bill’s passage for granted. Approval is not just a question of a positive vote – any amendment and the initiative must return to the Chamber of Deputies. 

Río Negro Senator Alberto Weretilneck, a customary government ally, is one such legislator said to be pushing for amendments which the Frente de Todos coalition would prefer to avoid.

The bill’s approval (the equivalent of second reading in the Anglo-Saxon parliamentary world) was the work of a plenary session of the Women’s, Justice and Health Committees and came after four days of discussions.

“It’s time to stop debating and start signing,” proposed Justice Committee chairman Oscar Parrilli (Frente de Todos-Neuquén), a figure closely linked to Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner who is already committed to voting in favour of the initiative.

On Wednesday, Fernández de Kirchner – the former president who leads the upper house in her role as VP – duly issued a decree calling a special session for Tuesday, December 29 at 4pm.

Senators will vote on the Alberto Fernández administration’s bill to legalise the  voluntary interruption of pregnancy in the first 14 weeks, as well as the so-called ‘Thousand Days Programme’ which would provide comprehensive healthcare during pregnancy and early childhood.

Two years ago a similar bill was approved by the lower house of Congress before it was narrowly rejected by the more conservative Senate. Back in 2018 neither then-president Mauricio Macri nor vice-president Gabriela Michetti heading the Senate, both voicing pro-life stances, backed the push, but the panorama is seen as different this year with President Alberto Fernández decidedly in favour. 

This will be the ninth time that a bill to legalise abortion has been presented in Congress. Abortion is currrently only permitted in cases of rape or danger to the woman’s life, under a 1921 law.

In the balance

The fate of this new legislative push remains uncertain. The spotlight is focused on the three undecided senators – Edgardo Kueider (Frente de Todos) and Stella Olalla (Juntos por el Cambio) of Entre Ríos and Neuquén’s Lucila Crexell (Movimiento Neuquino) – who all abstained in 2018, but they have yet to sign the committee statement. Their stance will have to await the final vote.

Senator Juan Carlos Marino (Radical-La Pampa) recently confirmed that he would be voting against, as he did two years ago, despite having shown some signs that he could change his mind.

“I know that people were speaking of the possibility of a change in my posture because again I met up with everybody and heard them out,” he said in comments reported by local media. “The reality is that I consider the debate within society to be incomplete. In Congress we’ve listened to renowned lawyers and doctors favouring both one position and the other.”

On the other hand, Senator Ernesto Félix Martínez (PRO-Córdoba) has confirmed that he would be voting in favour, though he explained that he would be signing in dissidence over some points because he does not consider the bill the best which could be approved. The statement set alarm bells ringing in the green pro-abortion rights camp but in principle his support is not said to be at risk.

“Our dissidence stems from certain situations related to Articles 11 and 13 and I have to reserve myself the right to discussion on the House floor. I’ll sign the [plenary committee] dispatch in dissidence,” said the Córdoba senator.

Weretilneck also favoured the initiative while proposing a series of amendments to permit the interruption of pregnancy beyond the 14th week in such circumstances as a congenital malformation incompatible with life, serious risk to the mother or in pregnancies resulting from rape.

“The amendments proposed do not question the right [to abort] but, quite the contrary, seek to reinforce and regulate it as per the National Constitution where all rights are subject to the norms regulating their exercise – in other words, no rights are absolute,” Weretilneck’s note told Health Committee chairman Mario Fiad (Radical-Jujuy).

The former Río Negro governor further revealed that he had a vasectomy 16 years ago because “I did not want to be a father anymore.” 

“If the law does not contemplate, cover, respect and protect the health teams, I can assure you that in two years this law will have nobody to carry it out,” questioned the ex-governor.

Tensions are running high. “They want to approve abortion in a hustle. Let us not lie to each other! This is not a tax we can change. The damage is irreversible,” asserted Senate Majority Leader José Mayans (Frente de Todos-Formosa) this week, upset over the rapid treatment given the issue in the upper house.

An estimated 370,000 and 520,000 clandestine abortions are performed annually in Argentina, according to government statistics.

Legislative impasse

Expectations are running high ahead of next Tuesday’s session since neither sector has the necessary votes. The two sectors are identified by the colours green and blue but the issue could also be coloured red for the red-hot debate between the two evenly poised sides, still at a legislative impasse as they deploy their strategies to clinch a majority on the House floor. 

“We’re working to gain consensus, knowing that the Senate is trickier,” Women, Gender and Diversity Minster Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta said this week, highlighting that the government expects the bill to be law before the year is out.

Religious organisations have also sought to apply pressure. The Christian Alliance of Protestant Churches (Aciera, in it Spanish acronym) this week “invited” senators to reflect on the situation of the Virgin Mary before the birth of Jesus Christ.

“Being a woman in her times was difficult. If people had found out that she was pregnant without being married, she would have been condemned to being stoned to death. Joseph, faced with such a complicated situation, was deciding to abandon her,” says the Aciera document, celebrating that afterwards “Mary was illuminated with the hope that gave her the courage to go ahead” in the understanding that “with the help God give us, it is possible to go ahead in a world with everything against.”

A similar argument was offered by slum priest Father José María “Pepe” Di Paola (“Child Jesus would not have been born”), who also sought to highlight Mary’s decision to continue with her pregnancy.

Those in favour of reform dismissed those arguments, saying historic or religious narratives were invalid and irrelevant to the reality of an adolescent pregnancy nowadays.

Intense negotiations

Outside a mirror operation on either side of Congress is again being prepared – greens to the north, blues to the south. A shorter session than the 20 hours in the Chamber of Deputies is estimated but this time what is at stake is final approval, thus making the negotiations more intense than ever. A number of senators from inland provinces who do not face health impediments are travelling to Buenos Aires to follow the debate more closely.

The committee signatures left the sector in favour of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy hopeful of moving in front since Silvina García Larraburu (Frente de Todos-Río Negro), a naysayer of 2018, and Kueider gave their support to a positive vote. 

The health of Carlos Menem (Peronist-La Rioja), who in 2018 voted against legalising abortion, will also be another determining factor in the final count since he remains in hospital in serious condition and his participation cannot be guaranteed. 

Support for the bill has moved slightly ahead but some senators are still negotiating their positions. Some remain undecided and there are doubts about senators who could change their minds. But the undecided senators seem to leave the greens closer to clinching the votes necessary for final approval.

“I’m cautious about the votes for December 29. We’re trying to convince people with plenty of respect for those who are thinking of voting against so that they understand that this is not murder nor punished by God but a woman’s right,” said Senator Norma Durango (Peronist-La Pampa), who chairs the Women’s Committee and thus headed the preliminary debate from December 14 to 17. 

The committee statement, with 23 signatures, contained no amendments to the bill coming from the Chamber of Deputies, which had included changes related to institutional conscientious objections and the handling of abortions in underage girls. 

Pressure points

One of the outstanding points of the committee stage debate was the accompaniment of García Larraburu, who in 2018 (as a senator identified with Fernández de Kirchner) had voted against on the grounds that “abortion is not Peronist.” According to reports, enthusiasm among ruling party ranks in recent weeks over winning a vote amid so many intractable conflicts seems to have convinced García Larraburu to reverse her position.

The spotlight is also on Kueider, one of the undecideds who signed the committee report in dissidence like Martínez of Córdoba, who proposed amendments which have yet to be taken into account. 

On the other side, Senator Marino, whom pro-abortion militants had been confident of convincing due to the pressures of his own younger daughter Alfonsina in recent weeks, has finally confirmed that he will maintain his negative vote of two years ago.

Taking into account the previous votes along with the statements during committee debate, the vote in favour would be 36 with 34 against, with Lucila Crexell in doubt and José Alperovich (Frente de Todos-Tucumán) absent on leave. 

However, speculation also emerged this week as to a potential change of stance on the part of Oscar Castillo (Radical-Catamarca), who voted in favour last time at the request of one of his daughters but now speaks of the “opportunism” of the text sent by the government. He has indicated he could now cross over to the blues or abstain.

Tuesday’s session will have one novelty in the form of the presence of senators, given the reticence shown by Fernández de Kirchner to limit the remote handling of sessions. In the last session of the year, any senators who wish to do so may follow it from their offices and rotate their presence for the time they make their speeches, an alternative often requested by the Juntos por el Cambio opposition. 




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