On the 24 January, abortion became legal up to the 14th week of pregnancy in Argentina, following a historic bill passed by the National Congress on 30 December 2020. After 12 long hours of deliberation, the bill passed with 38 votes in favour and 29 votes against, making Argentina only the fourth, and the largest, Latin American country to legalise abortion to date.
This historic legislation is a triumphant victory for gender equality and reproductive rights in what is a majority Roman Catholic and conservative society, located within a region home to the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.
The passing of the bill emerges just two years since senators narrowly voted against legalising abortion in 2018. President Fernández had made reintroducing the bill one of his 2019 campaign promises, stating: “I am Catholic, but I have to legislate for everyone”.
On its historic passing, President Fernández further stated: “Today, we are a better society, that expands rights to women and guarantees public health”.
History of legal abortion in Argentina
The implementation of this legislation overturns Argentina’s near century long penal code, wherein abortion was specifically stated as a criminal offence. While the amendments made by Section 86 in 1921 provided exceptions, in which termination of pregnancy was permitted in cases of rape or when the mothers health was at risk, in all other circumstances abortion was illegal and punishable with up to 15 years in prison.
The international standard for human rights establishes that denying women, girls and people with reproductive capacity access to abortion is a form of discrimination and violates the right to life, as it compels pregnant people to resort to unsafe abortion. This has undoubtedly been the case in Argentina; wherein clandestine abortions and related health complications are the leading cause of maternal death. In 2016 alone 39,025 women and girls were admitted to public hospitals for this reason, 16% of whom were aged 10-19.
This is likely a fraction of the total figure, as it is widely reported stigmatisation and fear of criminal prosecution keep those who suffer from complications from seeking healthcare. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch documented multiple cases of women and girls in Argentina whose circumstances fell within the legal ‘exceptions’, but nevertheless faced “insurmountable barriers” in accessing legal abortion.
Changing the criminalisation of abortion is therefore an important step towards realising the human rights and freedoms of Argentinian women, girls, and people with reproductive capacity.
A ‘Green Wave’ Victory
This ground-breaking move follows years of campaigning by Argentina’s Green Wave, a grassroots feminist movement named after the green handkerchief symbolising reproductive rights.
It was a Green Wave protest in 2018 that prompted the then government to propose legislation decriminalising abortion, wherein nearly one million women took to the streets demanding a change to abortion laws. Following the senate’s narrow rejection of the legislation, the sustained activism of feminists across Argentina has been critical in both raising awareness of the pro-choice mandate and changing public opinion of religious mores.
This was acknowledged by President Fernández when he made a speech in favour of reintroducing the bill, while wearing a green tie. It is hoped that the achievement of these activists will inspire further change throughout Latin America. As one of the first Latin American countries to legalise abortion, this bill is in no doubt paving the way for other lawmakers to support access to safe, legal abortion.
In the words of Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, “Argentina has sent a strong message of hope to our entire continent: that we can change course against the criminalisation of abortion”.