Argentina lower house backs bill legalising abortion in first 14 weeks of pregnancy

The Catholic-majority nation could join Ireland in a historic victory for women's choice 

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Thursday 14 June 2018 15:16
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A girl runs in front of a banner that reads "Legal Abortion - Now is when" during a demonstration in favour of legalising abortion outside the Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 31 May 2018.
A girl runs in front of a banner that reads "Legal Abortion - Now is when" during a demonstration in favour of legalising abortion outside the Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 31 May 2018.

The lower house of Argentina's congress has approved a bill legalising elective abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, the first step towards what would be a momentous step for the deeply Catholic nation.

The bill now passes to the Senate which could strike it down. Argentinian President Mauricio Macri is opposed to the bill but has encouraged debate on it much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church. He has, however, agreed that he would not exercise veto power should both houses pass it.

Currently, abortion is illegal in the Catholic-majority country, from which Pope Francis hails. Though, there are exceptions in the cases of rape, incest, or when the health of the woman could be jeopardised by carrying out the pregnancy.

If women need an abortion, there is a legal hurdle: applying for permission from a judge who can either grant or deny it. There is often no guidance for judges or abortion providers, particularly in rural districts, about what they are legally obligated to do. It leaves the approval of abortions up to chance, depending on where the woman lives. Critics have said this adds an unnecessary burden on the women, particularly poor women, and adds to delays in getting the sometimes time-sensitive procedure.

In the past 13 years, six separate bills have been brought to Congress on the matter but this is the first one that has successfully passed through the House.

The vote itself was a dramatic moment for Argentinian women and choice advocates. Up to about three hours ahead of the lower house, called the Chamber of Deputies in English, vote the majority of votes seemed to be in favour of keeping the status quo. But, then a legislator from the provincial region of La Pampa in the central, ranch-filled heart of the country said he and two others would vote "yes".

This was despite several representatives in the Chamber receiving threats of violence and death from staunchly religious groups should they support the bill.

Still, the debate lasted through the night as activists and supports of the choice bill continued to demonstrate outside of the Buenos Aires building.

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Initially, the electronic board within the chamber had showed the incorrect vote until several legislators began shouting that their vote had not been counted accurately. Eventually though, cheers erupted in the crowd outside as the actual results were announced to the public.

Even if the bill does not pass the Senate, advocates of the broader "Ni Una Menos," or "not one less," women's movement have said just getting to the point where there is a lively debate and a vote on abortion is a major step in Argentina.

Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, told The Independent this is a historic victory in Argentina since democracy returned to the country in 1983. She explained that the discussion on abortions was born out of the Ni Una Menos movement, which held "incredible rallies in large stadiums" to advocate for ending gender-based violence.

As women were gathering in large groups they "started taking stock of all the human rights they were not enjoying," Ms Girard said, adding that they realised all these issues "are connected, it's all about control of bodies".

What has helped the pro-choice movement immensely is also that Ni Una Menos framed these debates as a "democratic debt...owed to women" as part of their rights as citizens in the Argentinian democracy.

Advocates also said the risk of illegal abortions can be dramatically reduced with proper legal guidelines like this bill because abortions are not altogether uncommon in the South American nation. The Ministry of Health reported "500,000 clandestine or illegal abortions are performed there each year in a population of approximately 44 million people," news outlet Vox said.

There were nearly 250 maternal deaths in Argentina in 2016 and 43 were caused by abortions. Ms Girard noted that makes it the "leading cause of maternal mortality," based on statistics from the health ministry.

This is one of the central points emphasised in the debate leading up to the vote. Ms Girard noted that the women's movement has started an "extraordinary mobilisation" to include doctors, public health professionals, and even Catholic groups advocating for choice based well outside the capital to capture a solid cross-section of the country to come and tell their stories to the House.

The testimonies, particularly by medical professionals in rural areas who often have less resources for care, highlighted the "real costs to women's lives and health" of unsafe abortions that are not under any kind of legal guidance, Ms Girard noted.

The Senate is expected to take up the debate after the World Cup. But, Ms Girard and others remained positive about what could happen, particularly given that the front pages and television media that are normally filled to the brim with football reporting were actually extensively addressing the abortion debate as well.

"Politicians respond to political pressure," Ms Girard said, adding that the because the movement is not just taking hold in rural areas and the energy of Ni Una Menos has "defied expectations" until this point, "anything is possible" with the vote expected in August or September.

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