When Alberto Fernández takes office on December 10, a bill to decriminalise abortion, later followed by its legalisation, could top his legislative agenda – at least if activists get their way.
The controversial subject returned to the public agenda this week after Argentina’s president-elect gave a lecture at the National University of Mexico this week, as part of his first foreign diplomatic trip as president-elect.
Opening up himself to questions from the hall, the very first question addressed the topic. Fernández didn’t shy away from stating his position.
“I’m not a hypocrite,” Fernández said in response to an inquiry from a student in the crowd. “I don’t believe abortion should be a crime and I hold that the State should guarantee that women can access abortion in safe conditions.”
The comments galvanised activist circles and renewed pressure on the presidentelect to make the issue a top priority.
“In our opinion, Fernández has to do this as soon as he takes office,” said Mariela Belski, executive director of Amnesty International A rgentina, speaking about legalisation.
“He’ll have the most consensus and the greatest concentration of political capital at the start of the new government,” Belski told the Times.
Campaigners with the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion (La Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito) also used his comments as a springboard to reinvigorate its calls for swift and immediate action.
The organisation, which has fought for 14 years to secure legal abortion for women, released a press statement titled “Aborto legal ya,” in which it requested a meeting with the president-elect.
“Today abortion is decriminalised socially and our society is ready to put aside the hypocrisy,” the NGO said. “We need reproductive autonomy to become a reality and abortion recognised as a right. This is a question of social justice and human rights.”
Belén Grosso, an activist and member of Colectiva Feminista La Revuelta in Neuquén, believes the arrival of Fernández to the presidential office represents a different kind of leadership that greatly benefits the movement.
“We finally have a president who talks about his position on this issue and sees abortion as a question of public health and a human right,” Grosso told the Times. “That’s not the same as one who doesn’t talk about it or who speaks out against it as such.”
The history of the abortion rights movement in Argentina is complicated. In 1921, the government legalised abortion in case of rape or when the mother’s health or life is at risk. However, this law was never enforced, and the procedure rarely offered nationwide.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled provinces were required to provide abortion under these circumstances, but it failed to create protocols to instruct them on how. Today, a woman’s ability to access legal abortion varies greatly depending on province and hospital, according to Belski.
Argentina’s Criminal Code permits imprisoning any woman who seeks abortion outside these three “legal” circumstances and any doctor who provides it. Congressional legislation is required to overhaul the code and decriminalise abortion, as well as create a law to legalise it, while implementation protocols could be established with a simple resolution.
For all the zeal of Argentine activists, many politicians have historically avoided abortion, including the soon-to-be vicepresident, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. During her tenure as president, she was decidedly quiet and, at times, evasive on the issue, failing to mask her anti-abortion position and even telling her Congress caucus that if they passed a reform, she would veto it (as her Uruguayan colleague Tabaré Vázquez did across the river in 2008).
Mauricio Macri and many in his Cambiemos coalition traditionally oppose the movement although it was the current president who announced last year’s bill during his state-of-the-nation address on March 1, 2018.
The proposed legislation that would have allowed women to obtain an abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy forced leaders to publicly account for their positions. Macri told legislators to “vote their conscience.” But his Health Minister Adolfo Rubinstein testified in favour, quoting Health Ministry statistics that around 354,000 clandestine abortions are carried out every year and buttressing a common refrain from activists that making abortion illegal only ensures it occurs in dangerous settings.
“It’s absurd to keep this criminal,” Grosso says. “Women get abortions now and we will continue to get abortions.”
Fernández de Kirchner eventually voted in favour, citing he daughter’s influence as the reason for her change of stance.
However, despite hundreds of thousands of Argentines flooding the streets, the measure narrowly failed in the Senate, with intense pressure falling on senators from conservative provinces from the Catholic Church.
In Grosso’s eyes, though, the fierce debates which engrossed the country during this period strengthened and empowered the grassroots legal abortion movement and signalled a social change.
“We achieved a lot last year. We unified people of all ages, genders, education levels and socioeconomic levels. We were able to speak loudly and proudly about abortion as a human right,” she said, adding the movement now wields more influence.
One of Fernández’s major challenges to avoiding the same fate will be do to do things “differently than Macri did,” according to Belski.
“Politicians know that you either win or you lose, there’s nothing in the middle. Macri lost because he didn’t give his party direction. It’s not enough just to put it on the agenda.” she argued. “Fernández will need to ask his entire coalition to vote for this bill, and he’ll also need to cut deals with members of the Senate.”
Economia Femeni(s)ta, an Argentine organization that highlights gender inequality through statistics, has created a predictive map showing how each member of Congress would vote should a bill for legalisation come to the floor. The group used election results from La Naciónto determine who will comprise the incoming Congress and looked at past voting records, campaign statements and other public comments, all of which is publicly available.
“The most important thing to know is that it would pass in the Chamber of Deputies and then, in the Senate, if the four undecided senators voted in favour, it would be tied,” said Lucia He, a journalist from RED/ACCION and one of the map’s creators.
If votes were to end in a tie within the Senate, Fernández de Kirchner, in her role as vice-president, would break the tie.
“We expect, and we believe most Frente de Todos supporters expect that she would vote to support legalisation if there’s a tie,” Belski posited.
However, according to the map, without those four senators, the law would be rejected in the Senate. That’s where the negotiations Belski alluded to would come into play.
“I don’t believe there have been any discussions about the specifics of a law coming from the Executive, but all of us in Congress who are part of Frente de Todos support the campaign position,” said Victoria Donda, a Peronist lawmaker in the lower house Chamber of Deputies and a key campaigner for abortion reform, in a WhatsApp message to the Times.
She added some of her colleagues have speculated they could see proposals as early as the start of the year, but nobody really knows for sure.
The president-elect was candid about his position on abortion throughout the campaign. On October 22, Fernández gavean interview to a radio station in Córdoba and commented on the case of Lucía, an 11-year-old girl who was raped, impregnated and denied access to the procedure in Tucumán.
Fernández said, if he won the upcoming election, he would propose a law to legalise abortion.
“Juan [Manzur, the governor of Tucuman] knows what I think and I know what he thinks,” Fernández said. “Once and for all, we need to stop putting the lives of young women at risk.”
Any legislation’s fate will almost certainly face off again against the same bastions of opposition which animated last year’s battle — the Church and provinces that remain steeped in conservative culture.
“This isn’t just about passing a law,” Grosso says. “It’s about changing a society that’s accustomed to cruelty and judgment against women.”
Ultimately, though, even an ally to the movement like Fernández could end up conceding to political realities, Belski cautioned.
“He’s a politician and, unlike Macri, he knows that he has to win. So there’s a risk that he counts the votes and realises he doesn’t have enough, so instead he decides to move forward with implementation of the existing rules around legal abortion and changing the Criminal Code,” she said.
Based on Fernández’s comments in Mexico, he doesn’t believe legalisation will be up for a vote at the start of the president’s first term. Instead, she says, he’ll first reform the Criminal Code with legalisation to come later.
“Given the political and economic context, I think he’ll provide other priorities that perhaps will advance first along with decriminalisation, followed by full legalisation,” she said.
When asked if the larger movement would be satisfied if decriminalisation was achieved without legalisation in the end, Grosso decidedly said no, the two ultimately have to be joined together.
“If we only get one, we will continue to fight, continue to go into the streets. We will not be quiet,” she said.
Currently, Uruguay is the only country in South America which has legal abortion. Given Argentina’s history as a regional “trendsetter” in human rights achievements — like same-sex marriage law passed in 2010 — Belski believes legalisation could start a ripple effect throughout the region.
“Fernández needs to know the
world expects Argentina to make
this happen,” she said.