Argentina legalizes abortion

Crowd of women waving green flags calling for legal abortion Wikipedia Commons

Comes after decades-long fight

While Brexit and American politics have dominated the headlines of Western media, South America bore witness to an unprecedented triumph for reproductive justice almost 40 years in the making. Argentina, the second largest and second-most economically developed nation on the Latin continent, appropriately became just the second country on the continent to legalize abortion. In the waning days of 2020, Argentina’s Senate, which previously enforced some of the world’s strictest anti-abortion laws, voted to decriminalize the medical procedure, fulfilling one of President Alberto Fernandez’s campaign promises and reversing a 2018 decision not to decriminalize or expand the law, a law which has resulted in at least 3000 deaths due to amateur/illegal treatment since the 1980s.

Since the fall of Argentina’s military junta in 1983, a host of women’s rights advocates have pushed for greater equality within their relatively new democracy, including expanded access to, and decriminalization of, abortion. As time passed, the nation’s various equal rights groups coalesced and formed the Campaign for Safe, Free, and Legal Abortion, adopting the wearing of a green handkerchief, or Pañuelo Verde (a historic symbol which originated from protests against government sanctioned killings and kidnappings during the Videla dictatorship), as a popular representation of the campaign’s various women’s rights initiatives, a symbol now adopted across much of Latin America. Despite being an overwhelmingly majority Catholic country, even among young adults, the Verde movement exploded during the 2010s, which saw major calls for abortion reform from mostly grassroots organizations despite the split amongst Argentinians over the issue.

Argentina first voted to overturn a 1921 law which banned abortion, outside cases of rape or extreme threat to personal health, in 2018 and narrowly voted against reform. In response, thousands of Argentine women took to the streets in protest, and after a successful electoral campaign by Argentina’s liberal Fronte de Todos party in 2019, the issue was brought back to the legal table in early December, 2020. After a short yet incredibly heated debate, the proposed bill passed the first level of government and onto the Senate, where after two weeks of debate, 67 Senators, five of whom remained undecided (four of which voted against reform in 2018), deliberated and eventually ruled 38-29 in favour of the bill. The new law allows for total access to abortion for the first trimester of pregnancy, as well as much looser sanctions afterwards, and provides wider funding for medical facilities across the country.

Not all were happy, however. A massive crowd of anti-choice supporters, identified by their signature blue handkerchiefs, gathered in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo Square, separated from the crowds of pro-choice supporters by police barricades, and soon after the bill was passed dozens of counter-protests from other blue handkerchief groups sparked across the country. Catholic Church officials have also railed against reform, who, alongside the country’s substantial Evangelical community, have lobbied against the change for over a decade (Pope Francis, himself a native Argentine, remained mostly quiet on the issue). Any attempt to overturn abortion legalization is likely end in vain at least until the next election.

Argentina’s legalization of abortion may possibly herald a domino effect across Latin America. Chile’s government has already begun discussing possible decriminalization, and there are growing calls for abortion reform in Brazil, Costa Rica (which legalized gay marriage last year), and the Dominican Republic. As well, the international organization, Catholics For Choice, has seen its membership explode within the last year both within and outside Latin America, and a growing share of the international Catholic population (outside the priesthood) now identify as pro-choice. The wheels of change across South America have now gained tremendous speed, and as long as movements like the Pañuelo Verde keep fighting for equal rights, there is little chance of them slowing down.

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