OPINION: It's time to legalise abortion in Argentina

by Jessie Clyde | International Women's Health Coalition
Thursday, 12 December 2019 12:30 GMT

Activists hold green handkerchiefs, which symbolizes the abortion rights movement, during a rally to legalize abortion, outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I stand alongside other feminist activists to urge Argentina's new president to fulfill his promise and prioritize the decriminalization of abortion

Jessie Clyde if the director of grantmaking and the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), a feminist advocacy and grantmaking organization with a long history of supporting the Argentine feminist movement.

As Argentina’s new president takes office this week, he will be met with hope and high expectations. For many, Alberto Fernandez holds the promise of progressive social and economic change, but for members of the feminist movement and National Campaign for Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, his inauguration presents an opportunity to finally legalize abortion.

The hopes are well-founded. In interviews following his election, Fernandez  pledged to support a bill to decriminalize abortion, acknowledging it as a public health issue and expressing sympathy for women who have been persecuted—such as Belén, imprisoned for more than two years for a miscarriage—for ending their pregnancies.

Since 1921, abortion has been permitted to preserve the health or life of a pregnant person, or in cases of rape. However, unless Argentina commits to full decriminalization, women facing an unwanted pregnancy will continue to face countless barriers resulting in forced motherhood, morbidity, or death. When abortion is criminalized—even in limited circumstances—stigma and discrimination, ignorance and confusion about the law, high costs, and countless other barriers force women, particularly the most marginalized, to seek substandard care.

Last year, Argentina failed to decriminalize abortion. The consequences have been deadly. In August 2018, just days after the Senate voted down a bill that would have decriminalized abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, Elizabeth, a 34-year old mother of two, died after attempting to induce her own abortion by inserting parsley into her cervix. The tragic news was met with the hashtag #ElSenadoEsResponsable, “the Senate Is Responsible,”and served as a grave reminder of what’s at stake in the fight for abortion rights.

Elizabeth was one of approximately 40 people that die each year in Argentina due to illegal and unsafe abortions. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Abortion is safe when performed by reputable providers or with proper medication. Data shows that criminalization of abortion does not reduce abortions, but makes them less safe. Additionally, legalizing abortion results in lower rates of maternal mortality. By legalizing abortion, Argentina can begin to address this public health crisis and better fulfill the human rights of women throughout the country.

Even under the outgoing, more conservative administration, Argentina has shown a commitment to improving sexual and reproductive health and rights. In October, the government announced that the adolescent pregnancy rate had dropped 20% in the last three years. This was welcome news for a country that has long suffered from high rates of adolescent pregnancy. Health and education officials credited significant investment in its adolescent pregnancy prevention plan, which included comprehensive sexuality education, access to contraceptives, and programs to prevent sexual violence and abuse. Critically, the plan emphasized the importance of young people being able to make informed choices. The investment paid off.

While I too celebrate this accomplishment, unfortunately, women, especially young women, are still unable to make autonomous decisions about one of the most important decisions of their reproductive lives: when to have a child and when to terminate a pregnancy. For that reason, abortion remains one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in Argentina.

The National Campaign’s long-standing slogan is: “Sexuality Education to be able to make choices. Contraceptives to help prevent abortion. Legal abortion to save lives.” I congratulate the Argentine government for its success adhering to the first two demands of the campaign, and I urge the new president to make good on the last.

For 14 years the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion has tirelessly worked to legalize abortion. While legal change has not yet been realized, their efforts have firmly placed abortion rights on the national agenda and shifted public opinion in their favor.

The legalization of abortion in Argentina would be a watershed moment not only for the country, but also for the region. Latin America is home to the world’s most restrictive abortion laws. More than 97% of women of reproductive age live in countries where abortion is banned or heavily restricted—undermining women’s rights and leading to countless deaths.

I stand alongside other feminist activists to urge Argentina's new president to fulfill his promise and prioritize the decriminalization of abortion. Women’s lives have been used as a political football for far too long. In Argentina—indeed, worldwide—now is the time to heed their demands.