Abortion laws in Latin America remain some of the most restrictive in the world. Of the 33 countries in Latin America, only Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana permit elective abortions. Elsewhere, the right to an abortion is extremely limited and often only permitted in the case of rape or if the mother’s life is in danger. Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Suriname maintain an absolute ban on all forms of abortion. For more than 97 per cent of the women living in the region, abortion is both illegal and risky.
For years, it appeared unlikely that there was going to be any changes in abortion rights in the region. The Catholic Church continues to exert a profound influence on public life and most major political parties maintain a hard line on the issue. Yet, in 2018, it seemed that despite all odds, Argentina was on the brink of massively expanding the right to legal abortions.
It is estimated that over 500,000 clandestine abortions occur every year in Argentina. Of these, 50,000 result in women being admitted to hospital due to complications. In fact, problems associated with clandestine abortions are the leading cause of maternal death in Argentina. The likelihood of having a botched abortion is disproportionately higher if for poor women, with the common activist refrain being, “rich women have abortions, poor women die”.
Yet despite the obvious public health concerns of clandestine abortions, the reinvigoration of abortion debates in Argentina came as a shock to many. Argentina is an overwhelmingly Catholic and conservative nation. In fact, it is the birthplace of Pope Francis, who recently denounced abortion as the “white glove” equivalent of the Nazi-era eugenics program.
Many credit Argentina’s unprecedented push to legalise abortion to the reinvigoration of the women’s rights movement since 2015. The “Ni Una Menos” movement which translates as “Not One Less” or “Not One More Death”, is a protest movement that originated in Buenos Aires and rallied against gender-based violence and femicide. The group adopted green handkerchiefs as their symbol and their rallies and by 2018 the rallies they led appeared from a distance as a sea of green.
As debates about violence against women grew into wider conversations about women’s rights, activists began to push for a bill that would legalise abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. This debate divided the nation and the political class. President Macri, who personally opposes abortion, stated that he would give members of his party a conscience vote on the issue.
In June 2018, activists scored an unexpected victory when the lower house of Congress approved the bill. However, in August, the bill was narrowly defeated in the Senate. Despite the failure of the bill, the pro-abortion movement made some important political inroads. Among the senators who voted for the bill was Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who despite opposing legalising abortion when she was president, stated that the thousands of women in the street had changed her mind. Kirchner is also a likely favourite for president in the upcoming 2019 elections.
The debate on legalising abortion has been revived in recent weeks after the revelation that a doctor decided to perform a caesarean section on an 11-year-old rape victim, rather than perform an abortion as requested. Even though abortion is legal for rape victims in Argentina, a series of delays by medical staff meant that the option to abort was no longer possible. The foetus survived the procedure but is not expected to live.
While elective abortion remains illegal in Argentina, the fact that the debate arose and that the legislation was only narrowly defeated demonstrates a real cultural shift. Only 10 years ago, this debate would have been inconceivable in a nation that is still largely Catholic. This cultural shift is occurring, not just in Argentina, but across the region, with the “Ni Una Menos” and pro-abortion supporters rallying in Uruguay, Mexico, Peru and Chile. Most importantly, the abortion debate remains a part of public discussions. While activists may have lost the abortion vote in Argentina, they started a movement. One which is unlikely to see its end any time soon.
Rose Iles Fealy is the Latin American Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.