The Fight for Legal Abortion in Argentina
By Veronica Stewart
February 23, 2019
ON THE MORNING OF OCTOBER 1ST, my stomach dropped as I was leaving my apartment: I had forgotten the green pañuelo (handkerchief) that hangs from my backpack every day. I felt naked without it, so untrue to myself that I stopped and considered going back to get it, but I was running late and couldn’t do so. I continued the two blocks to the subway station and encountered more than five women with the pañuelo hanging from their bags. I smiled to show my complicity, to tell them “I forgot the uniform, but believe me, I am a part of your army.”
Distributed by the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion, the green pañuelos read “sexual education to decide, contraception to avoid abortions, legal abortions not to die.” For the past decade, carrying a green pañuelo has been a symbol of feminism in Argentina, of the fight for legal abortion. But it wasn’t until very recently that women started carrying them on their backpacks every day.
The use of pañuelos dates back to the seventies when, during the last dictatorship, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo wore white ones as they protested in order to learn the whereabouts of their kidnapped children. Today, it is primarily young women who wear the green pañuelo, which is perhaps one of the most moving aspects of the fight for legal abortion: it has managed to mobilize thousands of teenagers and young adults. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo certainly brought in a lot more than the use of the pañuelo: they served as role models for women fighting for human rights in Argentina. As legislator Gabriela Cerruti, who belongs to the generation in between the Mothers and the young women, said during the debate in the Lower House, “we are the children of the crazy mothers and grandmothers in the white pañuelos and the parents of the crazy young girls in the green ones.”
In 2015, the Ni Una Menos movement marked the first massive feminist march in Argentina, protesting the femicide epidemic that was hitting the country back in 2015. The march put the issue of women’s rights on the map, and at the very least associated the word “feminism” with a movement that thousands of women aspired to be a part of. Soon, newspapers thought twice before making a femicide victim’s past and outfit the sole focus of their story.
Despite this progress in the feminist movement, the debate regarding legal abortion didn’t get the public recognition it so desperately needed until 2018. While discussing the issue with people who did not live in Argentina, I often encountered the same baffled question: how could a country that had legalized same sex marriage in 2010 and that had passed one of the most progressive gender identity bills in the world still lag behind other nations regarding abortion?
When the International Women’s Strike—a worldwide movement that encouraged women to take on the streets to protest the wage gap and gender inequality as a whole—occurred on March 8th, 2018, the abortion debate suddenly became much more visible. The strike filled the streets with the feminist songs, and for the first time the call for legal abortion sounded a bit louder than everything else.
President Mauricio Macri expressed his willingness to discuss the issue in Congress. The feminist movements and their incessant work on social media and appearances on TV shows paved the way for what was, decisively, a historic congressional debate. Just a few months later, a date was set: the bill to legalize abortion would be discussed in the Lower House on June 13th.
JUNE 13TH: THE LOWER HOUSE SAYS YES
After seven failed attempts, the National Campaign finally presented their bill for debate in the Lower House. The bill specified that anyone who desired could terminate their pregnancy in a public hospital for free, as is the case for every other medical procedure in Argentina. The current law regarding abortion states that it can only be done if a woman has been raped or if her life is at risk; whether a judge has to go over the case and authorize it depends on the laws of each province. This newly proposed bill would allow abortions up to their fourteenth week of pregnancy, regardless of the reason, with no judicial authorization needed.
On the morning of June 13th, preparations for the debate began. Every one of us knew it was going to be a long night, waiting outside the Congress building for the vote to come in. Voting in the Lower House in Argentina has been a historically tedious practice; no fewer than 257 lawmakers speak about their reasoning before casting their votes.
The square in front of Congress had been divided in two to avoid confrontations, and aerial photo coverage of the evening showed a literally separated country. On Avenida Rivadavia, the glittered-up faces of thousands and thousands of activists called for the legalization of abortion. To the south of Congress were those who were, in their own words, “defending life.” This label, this phrasing, carries a sinister linguistic tactic that partly succeeded. Many of the people present—and 125 lawmakers in the Lower House, we would find out the next morning—equated a zygote with a fully formed human being.
In essence, the two sides were having two different conversations, which led to a long and arduous debate. The feminist, pro-choice movement was fighting for safe abortions. The pro-life movement wanted abortions to somehow stop happening. While we presented a public policy that would allow the nearly 500,000 clandestine abortions that are practiced every year to occur in a safe, medically controlled environment, the “pro-lifers”, claiming to want to save both the “child’s” and the mother’s lives, proposed nothing to get it done. The pro-choice movement provided a tangible solution to a very real problem. The pro-life movement was fighting to continue ignoring the problem.
In the name of thorough reporting, I decided to go on an exploratory mission to the uncharted waters of the pro-life movement. There were many things worth noting. Actress Viviana Canosa performing live ultrasounds on pregnant women on stage was, perhaps, the most bizarre of all events, especially considering that the pregnancies she showcased were much further along than what the proposed law would allow for termination.
Inside Congress, the level of debate wasn’t any better. Estela Regidor, a lawmaker from the province of Corrientes, compared women to dogs, claiming that “when a dog gets pregnant, we don’t take her to the vet and have them perform an abortion.” On the streets, religious groups were shouting “viva Cristo rey,” (Long live Christ) and saying that if one of the two lives had to end, let it be the mother’s.
The concerns and inner workings of the “pro-lifers” suddenly became crystal clear. While the feminist movement had worked on concrete policy changes for years out of conviction and activism, the “pro-lifers” were simply responding to another group’s attempt at changing the status quo. Most people on their side were either very conservative or extremely Catholic, and the Church in Argentina holds an immense power over politics, so much so that it is partly financed with taxpayers’ money. By the end of 2018, the State gave the Catholic Church $177 million pesos to finance their faith. A bill to legalize abortion would not only let women take control over their own bodies and sexualities, but would also mean a very clear stance against Church policy.
After listening to hundreds of arguments related to religion and dogmatic control over women, I was reminded that the grass on our side was much greener, and I headed back to Corrientes and Callao where I was greeted with dozens of signs that read “mi cuerpo, mi decisión” or “keep your rosaries away from our ovaries”. Instantly feeling more at home, I stayed there until ten in the morning, when the votes were finally cast.
Most of us spent over twelve hours in the street. It was winter, and it was freezing. But we had blankets and tents. We shared food and drinks, and we made bonfires. The National Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion organized an outstanding festival, with bands playing until four in the morning. Morale was high. In the end, when the Lower House voted to legalize abortion, we weren’t even tired. The adrenaline had kept us warm, and it kept us going all the way until August 8th.
AUGUST 8TH: SENATORS SAY NO
On the morning of August 8th, it wasn’t only freezing cold; it was also raining, and we knew our battle was almost impossible to win. There were only 72 senators to cast a vote and with 38 of them having announced they would vote against it, one abstention and one absence, we knew the odds of turning the tide were virtually non-existent.
Yet something curious began to happen as the hours went by. The later it got, the more aware we became the bill was not going to become a law. But the celebrations kept going. Just like on the night of the 13th, hordes of women played drums on the street. There were bars filled with green where diners would suddenly burst out in song, and hundreds of girls watched live transmissions of the whole debate in hotel lobbies. When we talked to one another, we all said the same thing: we’re not winning this. We know we’re not. But it doesn’t matter.
I was reminded of a quote from one of my favorite books, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. The novel captures what it was like to live in the sixties, and at one point Thompson says “You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.”
We did not win. And of course, we needed to win. It was very much a matter of life and death, and women will continue to pay the price. But the roar of the more than one million people taking to the streets was deafening, and has become impossible to ignore. The vote, although not surprising, was devastating in the early hours of August 9th. But the message across all platforms and social media from well-known feminists, artists, and journalists, and from women from all walks of life was loud and clear: the eventual legalization of abortion is unstoppable. We might not have won the debate in Congress, but we certainly won it in the streets—we have done away with the taboo behind it.
Win or lose, the fact that so many of us had flooded our homes, our jobs, our schools, even our churches and temples with this gigantic green wave was a huge win. We had gone from not mentioning the word “feminism” to not letting anyone forget it. That’s what wearing the pañuelo on the street is all about. That’s why on the morning of October 1st I was eager to go back to the apartment and tie it on my backpack. So that everyone who crossed paths with me would be reminded of the debt that we, as a country, owe the women in our lives. A debt that, sooner rather than later, is sure to be paid back. ❖