On June 13, 2018 the lower house of the Argentinian Congress voted in favor of a bill to decriminalize abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy. Less than two months later, the upper house voted against the bill so abortion in Argentina remains penalized except in the case of rape and danger to the life of the woman.
During the months leading up to the voting of the bill, thousands of women rallied to show their support, while the debate on both chambers reached the public and private spheres alike. This debate included both the traditional conservative opinion led by the Argentinian born Catholic Pope, but also the voices that recognize abortion as a women’s rights and social justice issue. Despite the results, the whole process constitutes a historical success for the civil society sectors that have been pushing the depenalization agenda for decades, not only in Argentina but in all of Latin America.
Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean
According to a recently published study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Guttmacher Institute, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) hold the highest estimated abortion rates in the world. The region also has some of the most restrictive legislation on abortion, with 97% of the women of reproductive age living in countries where abortion is penalized except for a few exceptions. Six out of thirty-four countries in LAC (Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Suriname) prohibit abortion altogether, while only in four (Cuba, Guyana, Puerto Rico, and Uruguay) abortion is legally permitted without restriction.
As a result of restrictive legislations, 10% of maternal deaths in LAC are due to unsafe abortion procedures. In addition, more than 700,000 women in the region are currently receiving treatment due to clandestine abortion interventions. Furthermore, access to modern contraceptive methods is most difficult in these countries, which further increases the number of women who turn to unsafe abortion. This figures also reflect deep inequalities, since the women using dangerous methods are predominantly poor and rural.
Another related issue in the region is the generalized lack of sexual education as well as the high rates of teenage pregnancy, which according to the WHO are the highest in the world after sub-Saharan Africa. Mexico for example, is the OCDE country with the highest pregnancies in girls and teens between the ages of 10 and 14 years, highlighting deep gender violence issues in connection with the lack of sexual education and access to contraceptive methods.
The “Green Wave” of Argentina
The months leading up to the vote of the bill in Argentina saw an unprecedented discussion on the above-mentioned issues not only in political circles, but also in the media, schools, families, and religious institutions. The green scarf worn by Argentinians who supported the passing of the bill became a region-wide symbol of the struggle for women’s rights and led to supporting demonstrations in countries like Chile, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay. This represents a significant shift from the morality-based discussions led by conservative sectors that still hold significant power in the region.
Across countries, the struggle has been highly differentiated. Chile, for instance, recently decriminalized abortion for fetus unfeasibility, to save the life of the woman, and in cases of rape. However, conscientious objection is allowed for both individuals and organizations, which means many women still lack access to safe procedures in several cities. Nevertheless, Chilean activists perceive the Argentinian case as hopeful and extremely valuable for the regional struggle.
In Peru, the Argentinian struggle served as inspiration to launch a campaign to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, after a failed bill in 2014. Costa Ricans are also pushing for the decriminalization in cases of danger to the mother’s mental and physical health. In Mexico, abortion is only legal in Mexico City. However, the elected government coming into office on December 1st, has promised to endorse decriminalization in all its causalities for the rest of the country.
On the other end, Brazil’s lower chamber recently approved a Constitutional Amendment which would criminalize abortion in all its causalities. Prior to the vote of the upper chamber, thousands of Brazilian women have taken to the streets to protest the bill. In El Salvador where the penalization of abortion has led to more than 28 women being incarcerated in cases of spontaneous abortion, a bill that would have decriminalized abortion in cases of danger to the mother and underage pregnancy through rape was rejected on May this year.
Despite the different national processes, there is little doubt that the Argentinian case had repercussions all over LAC. For both Argentinians supporting decriminalization and activists all over the continent, the Senate’s “no” did not represent an absolute failure. Instead, it signified the possibility of placing women’s reproduction rights and social justice at the center of the collective agenda. As Buenos Aire’s Senator Pino Solana said: “This is not a defeat, I am telling the women out there. This is a monumental triumph because we have succeeded in placing it on the national debate. Nobody will be able to stop the wave of the new generation. This will be law; there will be a law, against wind and tide”.