In Argentina, Feminists Versus the Catholic Church

June 7, 2018

Argentina’s Lower House will vote on a bill to legalize abortion on June 13 after a congressional debate opened in March for the first time in the country’s history. Why is it happening now, and why has it taken so long?

Abortion rights protestors demonstrate in front of Argentina's Congress on February 19, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons/Soyyosoycocomiel)

“For poor women there has been an unwritten death penalty in our legal system because they pay for the decision to interrupt a pregnancy with their lives,” said Argentinian feminist activist and historian Dora Barrancos, addressing legislators before Congress on April 10, when Argentina’s lower house began to discuss the legalization of abortion on request for the first time in its history. The bill in question was introduced by the Campaign for Safe, Free, and Legal Abortion, who have introduced a bill to legalize abortion in every parliamentary session since 2006—seven times total—but has faced overwhelming indifference and opposition.

But in February 2018, intense and large demonstrations by women’s organizations took place across the country to demand discussion of the Campaign’s latest bill, and right-wing President Mauricio Macri finally gave the green light to Congress to open up debate. Although he has declared himself to be “in favor of life,” he has also stated he will not interfere in the discussion. On June 13, lawmakers from the lower house will vote on legislation that legalizes abortion before 14 weeks.

How can we understand this sudden decision to allow for a debate that goes against Macri’s views and politics, a debate puzzlingly blocked by the left-wing government of his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who embraced sexual and reproductive rights throughout her administration? Examining how abortion rights have often served as a bargaining chip in political processes—which women’s movements have denounced and challenged—helps explain why it’s taken so long for this debate to occur in Argentina.

A Brief History of Abortion in Argentina

Since 1921, abortion in Argentina has been regulated under Article 86 of the country’s criminal code, which permits abortion only when the life and health of the woman is at risk or if someone with mental disabilities is raped. In 2012, in what has been known as the F.A.L. case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a broad interpretation of the law, which allowed abortion to be legal in all cases of rape, explicitly stating that the operation did not require a judge’s permission. Today, women continue to face obstacles to accessing legal abortions. Some public hospitals outright refuse to perform abortions, depending on their location. Only nine of 24 provinces have approved a health protocol to implement the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling.

Of course, as in other countries, legal prohibitions have not stopped women from having abortions. It is estimated that 450,000 abortions occur in Argentina each year. While very few women are convicted for abortion, the brunt of these legal prohibitions fall almost exclusively on poor women. Women from lower economic classes are forced to put their lives and health at risk by resorting to clandestine abortion providers without access to proper sanitary conditions. In Argentina, unsafe abortion is the highest cause of maternal mortality. Since the return to democracy in 1983, approximately 3,030 women have lost their lives this way.

In response to these conditions, in 2005, feminist activists launched the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion. The following year, they drafted a bill proposing the legalization of abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and later in cases of rape, fetal malformations, and risk to the woman’s life and health. The latest version of this bill extends the initial period to 14 weeks and explicitly states that the right to an abortion includes all people that can become pregnant. The bill gained the support of a large number of legislators each time it was introduced in Congress but has never reached discussion in a plenary session due mostly to opposition from the executive branch.

In the early years of the campaign, President Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and later his wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015) from the Frente Para la Victoria, the left-wing branch of the Peronist party, were veering the country away from the neoliberal policies of the 1990s. As part of the Pink Tide in Latin America, these presidents pushed for a heterodox approach to economic policy and made advancing rights a core priority in their administrations. In this sense, they actively embraced sexual and reproductive rights and sponsored key bills such as those supporting integral sexual education in 2006, same sex marriage in 2010, freedom for people to change their identifications to reflect the gender they identify with, and assisted reproduction in 2013. Feminist activists hoped abortion legalization would be next. However, based on her personal views against abortion, President Cristina Kirchner decided not to support this reform. Although her legislators in Congress overwhelmingly supported legalization, they chose not to open up a debate they thought they would not win without executive support.

In 2015, Mauricio Macri of the right-wing Republican Proposal party (Propuesta Republicana, PRO) won the presidential elections. Running on an anti-Kirchnerist platform, he promised to reduce corruption, strengthen institutions, and improve economic growth. In practice this has meant a return to neoliberal economic policies and an abandonment of the emphasis on expanding rights for the country’s popular sectors. Macri’s governmental coalition is economically conservative, but it includes a variety of actors, primarily those coming from the Party Unión Cívica Radical, who identify themselves as socially liberal, many of whom favor the legalization of abortion.

Macri’s decision to open up the abortion debate surprised many supporters and opponents alike. Opposition parties and the church immediately denounced it as a diversion strategy to shift attention from unpopular economic measures such as the elimination of subsidies for gas and electricity bills that raised tariffs to four or even six times as previous rates and accusations of corruption directed towards his cabinet. An analysis of PRO’s track record on reproductive rights seems to back up this interpretation. While serving as mayor of Buenos Aires, Macri vetoed a protocol that would have improved access to legal abortions. As president, he has reduced the budget and personnel for the Reproductive Rights Program under the National Health Ministry, and his party opposed the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2006. In addition, most of the main party leaders, including his vice president and the vast majority of his ministers, oppose the legalization of abortion.

The opening of the debate has also been interpreted as a challenge to the Catholic Church, which, under the leadership of Pope Francis, has been quite critical of neoliberal policies that have increased poverty and inequality. The pope and Macri have had tense relations since Macri served as mayor of Buenos Aires while the pope was cardinal of the city. At that time, the federal government’s agenda included same-sex marriage, and Macri, after some hesitation, finally expressed his support for the measure. Since he has been president, his economic policies have increased tensions, despite his party’s conservative credentials around what the Church denominates “moral issues.”

A final way to understand this bold move is to focus on the image Macri wanted to project to differentiate himself from his predecessor Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Despite maintaining his anti-choice stance, Macri has highlighted his pluralism and openness to dialogue, tarnishing the image of President Kirchner among her leftist constituents who have fought for abortion rights for years.

 

This isn’t the first time a neoliberal government has brought the abortion debate in Argentina to the fore, though in contrasting ways. In 1989, Peronist Carlos Menem became president and embarked on a radical policy shift toward neoliberalism. Over several years, his government lowered tariffs and removed other barriers to trade and capital flows, privatized several major state-owned enterprises, and deregulated the labor market—all policies which resulted in a large increase in poverty and inequality. These policies generated critiques from the Catholic Church due to its harmful social consequences for the most vulnerable sectors of society.

Menem, who converted from Islam to Catholicism to be able to run for president—a constitutional requirement until 1994—became a staunch defender for the “rights of the unborn.” Under his leadership, Argentina became the main Vatican ally in opposing reproductive rights in the UN Cairo and Beijing conferences. He also attempted to introduce a new article in the Argentine Constitution that would grant the right to life from conception, which failed due to the mobilization of women’s movements, opposition political parties, and the medical and legal communities. The strategy was clear: undercut the church’s criticisms against his economic policies by courting them with anti-choice policies. And it worked.

Yet today, almost 30 years later, another right-wing president deflects criticism of his policies by antagonizing the church rather than courting it. What is the significance of this shift? What has changed in Argentine society through these decades? The answer lies in the relative decline of the Catholic Church’s power and the growing effectiveness of the women’s social movement.

 

In recent decades in Argentina, the Catholic Church has been losing ground to the women’s movement. While the Church’s institutional image was tarnished by its support for the military dictatorship during the 1970s, its legitimacy continues to slowly erode. This has in part been global, related to the large number of sexual abuse cases among the priesthood, and in particularly, the role of the church as an institution that protected abusers and ignored victims. But in Argentina in particular, the church has seen its political power diminished with the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2010.

At the time, former Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, led the opposition to same-sex marriage and characterized the struggle as “god’s war.” The Church’s new position in the abortion debate shows it has learned its lesson from its role in the same-sex marriage debate. The national hierarchy has released a moderate statement affirming that life begins at conception but that it supports an open debate where all positions can be heard. Yet the church has mostly stayed out of it, preferring to leave the struggle against abortion to lay Catholics. Only two priests spoke in Congress about this issue in the current congressional debate.

On the other side, the Campaign’s movement has grown exponentially and is today present in all 24 Argentinian provinces. It is made up of more than 550 organizations, among them women’s groups, human rights organizations, political parties, and unions. It has received support from diverse groups such as LGBTQI and human rights movements, unemployed workers, unions, lawyers’ associations, and multiple public universities. Since the debate opened in Congress in March 2018, different collectives from all walks of life have embraced legalization. Doctors, for their part, have been more reluctant to support the legalization of abortion. While Health Professionals for the Right to Choose, which emerged in 2014, has played a prominent role in the abortion campaign and recent congressional presentations, the National Academy of Medicine released a public statement against legalization in April.

Meanwhile, discussions of feminism in Argentina have left the periphery and started to gradually conquer mainstream politics. This shift can be attributed in large part to the campaign against femicide under the slogan “Ni una menos” which has gathered growing support in Argentina, where a woman is killed due to her sex once every 30 hours. Since then, women activists have defined control over abortion as another form of violence against women— a framing that has begun to resonate among society as a whole.

In addition, another group of activists have emerged who provide women with information on how to perform their own abortions instead of focusing on legal reform. The development of misoprostol, a medication originally produced to treat ulcers that is legal in Argentina, as a means to terminate a pregnancy in the 1990s has revolutionized abortion access, making doctors and health professionals unnecessary for the provision of a safe abortion—provided women receive the right information about it. Grassroots organizations Lesbianas and Feministas and Socorristas en Red run hotlines in Argentina offering information about misoprostol, as well as offering to accompany women who choose to take the pill. These activists have been key in the social de-stigmatization of abortion and the breaking of taboos and myths surrounding it.

The growth of the abortion reform campaign and subsequent rise of popular support for the issue has not been lost on the government, nor gone unnoticed by its critics. In the midst of the initial debate about abortion, Monsignor Aguer, Archbishop of La Plata, stated that this is “a government without principles,” ruled by public opinion polls. In this sense, the movement toward acceptance brings to mind a similar shift, when same-sex marriage was under debate in 2009. When gay couples tried to register for civil weddings in the city of Buenos Aires, Macri, then-mayor of Buenos Aires, decided not to legally challenge them. Public opinion polls at the time said that 70% of porteños were in favor of same-sex marriage and Macri seemed to have heard this message.

Likewise, in March, polls showed a range of 57% to 66% in favor of abortion legalization and  26% to 31% in opposition, depending on the source. In 2004, surveys were reporting that only 24% of the population was in favor of abortion in all cases of unwanted pregnancies. The two surveys did not have identical sampling sizes and questions, but they seem to indicate an important shift.

 

On April 10, legislators from the congressional committees on general legislation, criminal law, family, and health, began hearing voices from civil society both in favor and against legalization. By May 31 more than 700 experts had presented their views. The committee will now discuss eight bills on abortion (one being that of the Campaign). On June 13, the Lower Chamber will vote on the legalization of abortion. The current count shows an uncertain result: 102 legislators are against it, 94 are in favor and 58 are undecided.

Supporters and opponents of legalization can be found in almost all Argentinian political parties, the first issue to cut across the polarization of the Kirchner era. However, most of the parties sway in a particular direction. Within the Frente para la Victoria, the branch of the Peronist Party that elected Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as president, 48 legislators expressed their support for the reform and only six will vote against it. Within PRO, Macri’s political party, 12 of his legislators have pledged to vote in favor, with 26 already stating their opposition.

If approved, the bill will go to the Senate, where the probability of success is much lower. The more rural and conservative provinces of northern Argentina, where the Catholic Church still has a strong political influence and many constituents oppose legalization, is overrepresented in the Senate. A similar situation developed in 2010 when legislators debated the same-sex marriage law, and the support of the executive branch under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner convinced many senators to either vote in favor or at least not be present in the chamber so as to reduce the number of votes needed to pass the reform. Kirchner infamously took two senators on a business trip to China during the senatorial vote on same-sex marriage to prevent them from voting against it. The lack of active support for abortion legalization from Macri could make a similar result less likely this time.

Regardless of how the vote goes, the discussion is in of itself remarkable, as representatives from all sectors of society—social movements, doctors, lawyers, actresses, academics and religious figures—have spoken both in favor and against the reform. The media has extensively covered these discussions, making congressional sessions available for live online screening. Those that have spoken in favor of legalization have focused on the issue as one of social justice, and a matter of women’s autonomy. They have also highlighted that there is no constitutional impediment to legalization and the inefficacy of the current laws in preventing abortions. The arguments against legalization evolved around the notion that life begins at conception and the unconstitutionality of this reform. Presenters repeatedly stated that abortion harms women in what they described as the “post abortion stress syndrome,” a concept that has not been affirmed by any psychiatric association.

Abortion has often served as a bargaining chip for other political and strategic issues, rarely discussed on its own merits. However, this time, the government has resigned itself to the debate, and the women’s movement has taken over. The topic of abortion has arrived to the dinner table of every home. Regardless of the results of the abortion reform bill in Congress, abortion has already been decriminalized by society, as many activists have said. Whether legislators choose to reflect this social change in the law now or later will not change this reality. The movement has already won the first battle.


Cora Fernandez Anderson is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at Mount Holyoke College. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Notre Dame.

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