High hopes for abortion rights to expand in Argentina

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 18 November 2020 22:44 GMT

Demonstrators wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) play drums during a rally in favour of legalising abortion, outside the National Congress, in Buenos Aires, Argentina September 28, 2020. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

Image Caption and Rights Information

Argentine President Alberto Fernandez presented the bill to Congress to legalize abortion, saying reproductive rights are a public health issue

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, Nov 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A fresh effort to make abortion legal in Argentina has a better chance of success than did previous failed efforts, supporters said on Wednesday, given political change and unprecedented backing by the president in the South American country.

Argentine centre-left President Alberto Fernandez presented the bill to Congress this week to legalize abortion, saying reproductive rights are a public health issue.

If passed, it would allow women to seek elective abortions in pregnancies of up to 14 weeks and guarantee access to the procedure as part of the country's health care system.

Abortion in Argentina, and in most countries in the majority Roman Catholic Latin America, is allowed only under limited circumstances, such as when pregnancy is the result of rape or when a mother's health is at risk.

If the law were to pass, Argentina - with a population of 45 million - would become the first large country in Latin America to allow abortion on broad grounds, rights groups said.

GOVERNMENT BACKING

Previous attempts to legalize abortion in Argentina have narrowly failed, mostly due to a lack of government backing and opposition from conservative lawmakers and religious groups in Pope Francis' home nation.

In 2018, a bill to legalize abortion was passed by Argentina's lower house but rejected by the Senate in a 38-31 vote.

This time, the centre-left party of the president, who succeeded conservative Mauricio Macri in December, has a majority coalition in the lower house.

Passage in the Senate likely remains difficult but former Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, now vice president and Senate head, would cast a tie-breaking vote if needed, campaigners said.

"It's a very different political set-up this time," said Paula Avila-Guillen, head of the Women's Equality Center, a U.S.-based health care and rights organization.

"Argentina has a president with high popularity ratings and who has the political will to get the bill through. The fact that he personally presented the bill shows this," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mariela Belski, head of rights group Amnesty International Argentina, said she too believes the law will pass.

"We are optimistic," said Belski, adding the bill is expected to be debated in Congress by year's end.

"This time the government not only supports it but also drafted the bill," she said.

Fernandez said on Tuesday on Twitter that laws making abortion illegal force women to have unsafe backstreet abortions.

Nearly 40,000 women in Argentina sought hospital care because of botched abortions last year, and 3,000 women have died as a result since 1983, he said.

"The criminalization of abortion has been of no use," the president said.

"The debate is not saying yes or no to abortion. The dilemma that we must overcome is whether abortions are performed clandestinely or in the Argentine health system."

The debate heightened last year when an 11-year-old rape victim was forced to bear a child despite requesting an abortion.

The rise of the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement, Argentina's answer to #MeToo, has helped the pro-choice effort, galvanising thousands of supporters to protest in the streets.

If the law is passed, Argentina could influence other Latin American countries with strict abortion restrictions, including a handful, mostly in Central America, that ban abortion under any circumstance.

"Argentina has been a country that has led progressive causes, like equal marriage in the region, and if the abortion bill is passed, it could set a precedent for others to follow," said Avila-Guillen.

Only three countries in Latin America - Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana - have legalized abortion, according to the Centre for Reproductive Rights.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.