Argentina became the largest Latin American nation to legalise abortion: The story of women’s fight for decades

Argentina became the largest Latin American nation to legalise abortion: The story of women’s fight for decades

December 12, 2020 marked a landmark day in the history of Argentina, as the Argentine lower house of Congress approved a bill that would legalise abortion. The bill then moved to the Senate, where it was again approved on December 30, 2020, as Senators voted in favour of the bill after 12 hours of debate – with 38 in favour, 29 against, and one in abstention. With this milestone decision, Argentina became the largest nation in Latin America to legalise elective abortion after a prolonged socio-political conflict. But, why is this a landmark moment for Women’s Rights in Argentina? 

What did the law state before?

Like all other Latin American countries barring Cuba, Guyana, and Puerto Rico, abortion was legally restricted in Argentina also. The Penal Code of Argentina classifies abortion as a crime against life as well as against the woman undergoing it. Performing an abortion would earlier result in imprisonment for both the person who carries it out and the woman who self-induces it or agrees to have it performed. 

The Code establishes only two exceptions – one, if the woman’s life or health is at risk and there is no other way of saving her or preserving her health; or if the pregnancy is the result of a mentally unstable woman having been raped. Although it was not legally necessary to get judicial authorisation in such cases, physicians requested it in order to protect themselves from possible lawsuits.

And now, Argentina’s Congress has signed a bill into law, making it legal for women to opt to end pregnancies for any reason up to 14 weeks, after which exceptions will be allowed for rape cases and women’s health concerns. 

It all started in 1994….

The year 1994 was a particularly important year for the debate on abortion, as a Constitutional Convention was called to reform the National Constitution. During the three-month reform process, the government along with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church carried out a fierce campaign whose explicit aim was for the new Constitution to ban all abortions. To this end, former president Menem endorsed a “defence of life from conception” clause.

This initiative was a manifestation of Argentina’s then complete alignment with Vatican policy on abortion, as propagated by the Argentine delegation at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and at the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. 

movement of women in Argentina to legalise abortion
Women in Argentina launched a mass-scale movement to demand the legalisation of abortion (Credits: Twitter/Halsey)

Political analysts believe Menem’s aim was to deflect the bishops’ criticism of the growing unemployment and poverty problem in the country, as well as to gain the support of the Church hierarchy and Catholic electorate in the presidential elections in 1995. 

The illegal abortion rate in Argentina

Even though there is no official data, experts have estimated that between 335,000 and 500,000 abortions are carried out in Argentina every year. In 1999, Argentina’s maternal mortality ratio was 41 per 100,000 live births. The figure was higher than that of other South American nations with similar or lower development indices. For instance, Costa Rica’s maternal mortality stood at 26 per 100,000 and for Chile, it was 27 per 100,000 live births. 

Unsafe abortions are the primary cause of maternal mortality in Argentina, accounting for 32% of maternal deaths. The magnitude of abortion-related morbidity could only be estimated from the national patient discharge data in public hospitals – where there were 53,978 discharges following complications of abortion.

legalise abortion poster in Argentina
A poster demanding legalisation of abortion (Wikipedia)

Mixed reactions and emotions

Health professionals, including obstetrician gynaecologists, played conflicting roles in the debate. Some physicians stressed the fact that abortion was a public health issue that needed to be addressed urgently. On a general thought, people agreed that legalisation of abortion would lead to a decrease in complications from unsafe abortions, and therefore of maternal deaths. However, there was concern about an increasing number of abortions in the upcoming years with the legalisation of abortion. There was also fear of social and moral alienation of women for undergoing abortions and facing the condemnation of the Catholic Church. 

Fight for the Right continues

Despite the new law in Argentina, women’s rights activists assess that the fight is far from over. Activists are hopeful that the passage of this law will have an impact on other countries in Latin America. At present, abortions are illegal in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic. In Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana, and in some parts of Mexico, women can request an abortion, but only in specific cases, and each country has its own laws on the number of weeks of pregnancy within which abortion is legal. In some countries, abortion even entails varying degrees of punishment and penalties for girls and women, including jail.

Argentina is no longer in the struggle between conservative stances and the acknowledgment that reproductive rights are human rights. The country looks forward to building a better society, which widens women’s rights and guarantees public health. 

Featured Image Credits: CNN

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