Argentine feminists pin hopes on Peronist duo to pass abortion bill

Argentina’s feminists suffered a setback in 2018 when a plan to decriminalise abortion was narrowly defeated in the Senate. Now they hope to secure support for a similar bill this week in the more conservative upper house after gaining a crucial ally: Peronist vice-president — and Senate chair — Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Ms Fernández de Kirchner had opposed legalisation of abortion during her own presidency. But in 2018, under the centre-right administration of Mauricio Macri, she said she had changed her mind after seeing “the thousands and thousands of girls rallying [in] the streets.” On December 29, the ruling duo she now forms with President Alberto Fernández will try to get the abortion right bill past the Senate hurdle.

If they succeed, Argentina would make history as the most populous country in Latin America to adopt such nationwide legislation. In Brazil, abortion is a crime, albeit tolerated if the pregnancy is the result of a rape, if it puts the mother’s life at risk or if the foetus has severe brain malformation. In Mexico, two states have made it legal in the first trimester. Women in El Salvador can spend up to 40 years in jail under charges of murders for terminating a pregnancy or suffering a miscarriage.

A life-size picture of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner during a demonstration © Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images

“This is all part of a larger process that includes women’s right to vote, shared custody of children, reproductive health, the rights of sexual minorities, gender quotas and more,” said Vilma Ibarra, Argentina’s secretary in charge of the bill and adviser to Mr Fernández in legislative matters. “These demands came with a strong impulse from civil society but needed a government behind them to make them a reality.”

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Two weeks ago members of Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies passed the bill, which would allow the termination of pregnancies in the first 14 weeks, by 131 votes to 117 — a wider margin than the 129-125 in 2018. But even with Ms Fernández de Kirchner exerting more influence as head of the Senate, it is not clear whether the legislation will win enough raised hands to reverse the 37-31 defeat of 2018.

The Peronist government has sought to convince its more conservative senators to switch position on the issue, or at least abstain. The opposition, meanwhile, is having second thoughts about allowing pro-choice activists within their ranks to give the government a political victory. Estimates suggest a tie, with the possibility of a tiebreaking vote falling on Ms Fernández de Kirchner.

Activists paint slogans on the pavement in Buenos Aires © Victor R. Caivano/AP

The law would cap decades-long feminist activism in a country where Catholic traditions remain entrenched. A milestone in this campaign was the creation of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion in 2005, that united scattered activist groups.

“We knew we needed to get society to decriminalise abortion first, that we needed to create a broad social consensus,” Celeste Mac Dougall, one of the group’s key members, told the Financial Times. “It was a lot of invisible work that changed the way in which people thought about the issue.”

Activists such as Ms Mac Dougall built networks of health professionals supporting women’s choice over abortion; they organised street rallies and cultural events, and campaigned for the liberation of women sentenced to jail for terminating pregnancies. They also lobbied to include sexual education content at school.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner she had changed her mind about the legislation after seeing ‘the thousands and thousands of girls rallying [in] the streets’ © Alejo Manuel Avila/Le Pictorium/dpa

Support for the right to abort “whenever a woman decides to” doubled between 2008 and 2019, from 14 to 27 per cent of the population, according to the National Survey on Beliefs and Religious Attitudes, the largest of such kind in Argentina. Meanwhile, supporters of full prohibition remained little changed at 19 per cent.

Religion is an important factor in the debate: opponents to abortion rights can be found among Catholics — a majority in the country — and evangelicals, a growing and active minority. But one in five Argentines say they are non-believers and while opposition to abortion tends to win when pollsters ask binary yes or no questions, a majority say they would back legalisation in some cases.

In 2018, feminist protests pushed Mr Macri to give his green light to introduce legislation, but he said he personally opposed it. Evangelical and Catholic organisations mobilised and with the help of senators from the more conservative Northern and Western provinces, the bill was knocked down.

The debate had political consequences for Mr Macri. The right splintered, with Juan José Gómez Centurión even launching a rival presidential bid in 2019 after years working with Mr Macri. His vice-presidential candidate Cynthia Hotton was a leading anti-abortion campaigner.

Currently touring the country to stop the bill, Ms Hotton insisted in an interview with the FT that Argentina’s population was mostly Christian and anti-abortion. “Whatever the outcome of the vote, it will not end up paying dividends for the government,” she warned.

Additional reporting by Jude Webber in Mexico and Michael Pooler in Sao Paulo

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