Thinkers such as Aristotle – whose views on the subject continue to be influential – religious leaders and politicians of one kind or another have been wrangling over abortion for well over 2,000 years without anything resembling a consensus emerging. The gap between the defenders of what they say is a woman’s right to do whatever she likes with her body and those who put first the rights they attribute to the as-yet unborn remains as wide today as it was in the ancient world. This is not about to change. In the coming weeks and months, Argentines will be treated to versions of the impassioned debates that time and time again have been held in other parts of the world, but it would be really astonishing if any of the participants managed to come up with something new.
If Congress does make its collective mind up, the result will depend more on the legislators’ reading of the current social climate than on the arguments wielded by those who want abortion on demand, the many who would prefer it to be limited to certain well-defined cases and the minority, apparently a fairly large one, that sees it as an abomination that should never be permitted. Though in recent years Argentine society, along with most others in the West, has become far less rigid than it used to be as far as sexual behaviour is concerned, its abortion laws are still among the toughest on the planet.
By unexpectedly inviting Congress to decide whether or not abortion should cease being a criminal offence, President Mauricio Macri greatly angered many Roman Catholic bishops who would much rather leave things as they are. Some accused him of bringing up such a contentious issue in order to distract attention from the country’s economic woes and the impact his government’s policies are allegedly having on the poorest of the poor. Others, such as Héctor Aguer, the archbishop of La Plata, said he must be a pagan at heart who had forgotten everything he was taught in the Catholic schools his parents sent him to.
The unease the clerics feel is understandable. They have good reason to fear not just the possibility that Congress decriminalises abortion, but also that their attempts to stop them from doing so bring them into disrepute, as happened when Raúl Alfonsín’s government defied the Roman Catholic Church over divorce. Back then, its more zealous representatives did their best to get caricatured as fanatics with outlandish views who were far more interested in defending antiquated doctrines than in the fate of their fellow human beings.
This could happen again if the churchmen fail to show proper concern for the many poverty-stricken young women who – unlike their wealthier sisters who can afford to go abroad or pay for the services of competent doctors – feel they have to choose between bearing an unwanted child and undergoing a clandestine abortion in appalling conditions. Juvenal had much to say about this particular injustice; over the centuries, the Roman satirist’s words have been echoed repeatedly by people who have never heard of him.
In most Western countries, abortion laws are the result of a compromise which annoys both the advocates of abortion on demand and those who insist that, as life begins at the moment of conception, preventing it from continuing is tantamount to murder. Time limits vary: in some European countries pregnancies should not be terminated after 12 weeks, while in others, among them most of the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland has its own rules), twice that many are allowed to go by before doctors are told they could be in big trouble if they decide to operate without consulting the authorities. It is generally agreed that factors such as the physical and, on occasion, mental state of the expectant woman or the condition of the embryo should be taken into account. In some countries, her economic circumstances are also considered important.
Aristotle’s idea that the foetus only becomes a living being and should be treated as such after it had acquired “life and sense” still weighs heavily in debates about when, if ever, it is too late to consider abortion anything but a death sentence for an innocent sentient individual who has as much right to survive as any of us.
Needless to say, most opinions on this difficult question are motivated by prejudice; “pro-choice” zealots say everything begins at birth, while their “pro-life” adversaries say it all starts at least nine months earlier and it is wicked to think otherwise. To press their case, extremists on both sides of the divide are fond of distributing gruesome photographs and films of what happens either to the mother or the aborted foetus. Not surprisingly in view of what is at stake, passions can run high; abortion clinics have been firebombed by individuals convinced the people running them are mass-murderers who deserve to die.
Thanks largely to the agitprop of militant feminists in the US, the never-ending abortion debate has been politicised and is now a permanent feature of the ongoing cultural war waged against conservatives by those who see themselves as progressives. That no doubt is why the “pro-choice” brigade here is in an upbeat mood; it may not win an overwhelming victory, but it is likely to see the abortion laws made less punitive than they are. However, things are not quite as simple as some would like to think. Many who want to see abortion discouraged are also against attempts to dissuade pregnant women from asking for one by telling them they could end up in jail.
That, by and large, is the position taken by moderate “pro-life” campaigners who, while they think abortion is wrong, say they are strongly in favour of making contraceptives more easily available, more sex education and providing generous welfare programmes for the many young girls who are reluctant to give birth to a baby because they are know they will be incapable of giving it the care all children need. However, though such efforts could certainly improve matters if they reduced the number of women who seek abortions, they would be nowhere near enough to eliminate what is generally agreed to be a major national problem. If the statistics being bandied about are correct, every year about half a million illegal abortions get carried out, often with ugly consequences for the women concerned.