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Argentina rejects legalizing abortion, but flings open once-taboo topic

Why We Wrote This

Latin America could seem a surprising place to debate abortion laws: strongly Catholic, with a growing evangelical population, and increasingly conservative governments. But franker conversations are adding nuance to the discussion.

Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Tamara Deisel and her friend Florencia Buena embraced outside Argentina’s Congress Aug. 8 in Buenos Aires, where they had joined a rally to show support for decriminalizing abortion. The Senate rejected a bill to legalize elective abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

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During the Argentine Senate’s 16-hour debate on legalizing abortion last night, the plaza outside was alive with chants and waving flags. Opponents ran into the street waving sky-blue banners and encouraging honks of support. Supporters of legalization, meanwhile, sported the green scarves that have become nearly synonymous with their movement. Early this morning, the Senate’s vote narrowly rejected legalization. But a host of factors have changed Argentina’s conversation about the once-taboo topic and other issues that directly affect women, echoing trends throughout Latin America. Movements like #NiUnaMenos, or Not One Less, have drawn attention to gender-based violence, while the Zika epidemic highlighted reproductive health. Increasing numbers of women are taking seats in parliaments throughout the region, and global initiatives have put a spotlight on maternal mortality, including deaths from illegal abortions. All together, it’s created the opportunity for more open conversations, activists say, even among families. One example? Argentina's former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, now a senator. During her administration, she opposed abortion, but she voted in favor of this week's legalization bill – a change her youngest daughter attributed to family talks around the table.

Noelia Rodriguez sat at a table in front of Argentina’s Congress this week, decorating and selling the green scarves that have become synonymous with the movement to decriminalize abortion in Argentina.

Ms. Rodriguez, who studies communications, is outraged that more than 3,000 women have died from clandestine abortions in her country in the past 35 years, according to activists’ estimates.

But believing in the right to a legal abortion is an opinion she’s kept largely to herself among her devoutly Catholic family – until this summer.

Early Thursday morning, after 16 hours of debate, Argentina’s conservative-leaning Senate rejected a bill to legalize abortion for pregnancies up to 14 weeks. But the flood of attention to the historically taboo topic in the lead-up to the vote has opened new spaces for Argentines – including families like Rodriguez’s – to candidly share their views.

“At first, it was difficult for [my mother] to accept,” Rodriguez says. Her family’s perspective on abortion was shaped by religion, she says, whereas she believes “legalizing abortion is a public health issue.” As more information surfaced about the risks associated with illegal abortion, their perspectives shifted. She convinced her mother and two younger brothers to join her last night, holding vigil in the cold, winter rain as the Senate debated.

The vote, which concluded 38 to 31 against legalization, is just one of the many national conversations in the region over the past few years, from Chile, to El Salvador, to Brazil. Latin America has some of the strictest laws on abortion, with six nations banning it in all circumstances, including rape or when the mother’s life is at risk. Yet the push for legalization has grown, even as governments in the region become more conservative, and staunchly pro-life evangelical congregations grow.

A confluence of factors have merged to crack open discussion on the sensitive topic, experts say, from a new generation of globally-engaged and web-savvy women’s activists to higher women’s representation in political office.

The rhetoric around abortion “is so inflammatory that often times it shuts down any conversation,” says Jocelyn Viterna, a sociology professor at Harvard University who studies abortion legislation in Latin America. Politicians “don’t even want to touch abortion, or the gray areas in the debate, because even bringing up the topic immediately gets you stigmatized.”

But that’s when very public debates about abortion, like what Argentina has experienced this summer, can prompt mobilization and broader change. “When you start to see other Latin American countries” like Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil discussing abortion cases, “it makes it possible for conversations to happen that wouldn’t have ever happened before,” Professor Viterna says.

Shift in debate

Latin America, a traditionally Catholic region with a growing evangelical population, has seen a “big increase” in public support for abortion in the past few years, says Mollie Cohen, an assistant professor of politics at the University of Georgia.

In 2012, there was roughly 56 percent support for abortion only in the most conservative cases, such as saving a mother’s life. That jumped to about 61 percent in 2016-2017, Professor Cohen says. Countries like Chile, Honduras, and Panama saw even more dramatic shifts.

“Something is happening in the public mood and mindset, and I think that’s translating, potentially, into legislation,” Cohen says of the uptick in proposed bills and public movements.

“Civil society [and] women’s movements focused on important issues about domestic violence and rights for women have pushed the agenda to this point after tackling [topics] that were maybe less risky” to broach politically, like legislation to end femicide or to punish domestic violence, says Christopher Sabatini, who lectures on Latin American politics at Columbia University. In Argentina, the 2015 #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less) movement drew attention to gender-based violence and murder. It has gained broad political influence and is credited for its role in pushing reproductive health onto the national agenda.

Other factors have played a role, like international attention on the region’s abortion laws during the 2016 Zika epidemic and related birth defects. There has been a boost in female political representation in the region, as well, which many academics believe helps get issues that directly affect women onto the political docket. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, nearly 29 percent of Latin America’s congressional seats are filled by women, compared with roughly 25 percent four years ago.

Many of the leftist governments that swept into power in the early 2000s, known as The Pink Tide, did not have strong track records for women’s rights, but may have helped lay the groundwork for today’s debates.

“Most progressive governments were not open to transforming abortion legislation after all, but by simply being in power, they likely opened a window for organizing that had been closed in the past,” says Viterna. “We are likely seeing the outcomes of that increased mobilization and organization now.”

She also points to unintended consequences of global initiatives like the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals, which put pressure on governments to decrease maternal mortality rates. Women’s deaths resulting from illegal abortions make the effects of restrictions much more salient, and can have tangible consequences on international funding, Viterna says.

'A central topic'

In Argentina, tens of thousands of demonstrators on both sides of the debate rallied in the rain outside Congress this week. The plaza was alive with passionate chants and waving flags, with legalization supporters and opponents separated by police barricades. Each time the traffic light turned red at the busy intersection, those opposed to the bill would run into the street waving their sky blue banners and encouraging honks of support.

“I think that if we’re debating something, it should be how to help a woman who’s pregnant,” says Corina Garzón, who came from Buenos Aires province to protest against changes to the abortion law. “But you can’t debate what to do with the baby who’s inside the woman’s stomach. The baby has to be born.”

In the evenings, the pro-legalization camp grew livelier: grilling meat, painting their faces in green and glitter, and chanting over the rat-a-tat of drums. In the center of the plaza, demonstrators set up a monument along a police barricade with three photos of women who died from complications during illegal abortions here. An estimated 500,000 women have illegal abortions each year in Argentina, according to Amnesty International.

In 2012, Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled that abortion is legal in specific cases including rape or when the mother’s life is at risk, but it requires often-lengthy steps to gain medical approval. The original penal code from 1921 only allowed abortion if a mentally ill woman was raped.

In June, when the lower chamber of Congress had passed the bill, it drew an estimated 1 million supporters to the streets of Buenos Aires.

“The government is conservative, but the women’s movement is very strong in Argentina,” says Mercedes D’Alessandro, the president of Economía Feminista, a nongovernmental organization that helped spearhead the recent decriminalization movement.

Organizers like Dr. D’Alessandro are convinced the debate has only just begun. She points to the strong social movement that erupted in just a few months since the bill was proposed, and the presidential election just over a year away. “Legal abortion will remain a central topic” of discussion, she says.

President Mauricio Macri, who is opposed to abortion, actually opened the door to discussion during his state of the nation address in March, when he called on Congress to consider a vote. It was a dramatic change from his predecessor Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who quashed debate on the topic during her two terms as president.

But Ms. Kirchner, now a senator, voted in favor of the bill last night. One possible reason for her shift? Family conversations around the table, her youngest daughter has said.

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