It was a biting cold night in Buenos Aires, but the raw temperatures did not discourage a million people to join the vigil before Congress last Wednesday.
Over 22 hours of debate later, on the early morning of June 14—with 129 votes in favor, 125 votes against and 1 abstention—the nation’s lower chamber approved a bill that would legalize abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. If the Senate approves it next month, Argentina will become the latest and largest country in Latin America where women can legally and safely pursue an abortion.
“There was always this thought, yes, this is happening, but also fear that the result could be no.” Carla Santángelo, editor at Índigo Editoras, arrived at the Congress square in the evening after watching the debate on television for a while.
“The square was physically divided in two sides,” she recalls. On the right, a tide of green handkerchiefs had formed by those in favor of decriminalizing abortion; on the left, their opponents wore blue scarves. Santángelo arrived with some friends and met many others as hours passed on the green side. Cellphone signal was weak, but they used WhatsApp to keep each other updated on the vote taking place some meters away. Someone sent a photo of the square taken from a drone—the difference between the green and the blue was unmistakable.
“We already knew it,” Santángelo admits. “We already knew that whatever was happening in Congress in that moment, it was not going to be representative of what was happening outside. I don’t mean this yes is not representative—it is—but such a tight margin does not represent what was going on in the streets.”
Poet and writer Nadia Sol Caramella wasn’t surprised by the number of people in the square when she arrived. The 2016 Women’s March, after all, drew 70,000 people. “But this time was special,” Caramella tells Ms. “I felt it was the day many feminists before us had long awaited—and many died without witnessing.”
“The spirit was around during the previous days,” Santángelo describes. “I saw girls wearing the green handkerchief in the subte (subway), in the bus, in the street, at the university. There were complicit looks that remain today. It has been breathtaking, I don’t have many more words, I’m still in shock.”
“Today,” Caramella declares after the vote, “Argentinian girls are feminist.”
Not everyone on the floor of Congress was as eager to celebrate. One member compared women to dogs during debate, adding that the solution to unwanted puppies is giving them away instead of obtaining an abortion for the female. Another member cited the Bible. A Catholic cross made an appearance. “Honestly, we do not understand what have we done to deserve this void of logic and empiric arguments,” Caramella tells me, “this political obscurantism and disaffection.”
Six countries in Latin America ban abortion with no exceptions: Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname. Only in Cuba and Uruguay is abortion legal, as well as the federal state of Mexico City, even though other countries, like Chile in 2017, have taken steps to ease their own bans. Between 2010 and 2014, 6.5 million abortions were induced in Latin America—but only 1 in 4 were safe. According to Guttmacher, 10 percent of maternal deaths in 2014 in the region were related to such unsafe abortions.
“The dramatic progress on abortion rights in Argentina,” director of the International Women’s Health Coalition Jessie Clyde said in a statement, “is due to the tireless work of the women’s movement.” Now Argentina’s feminist movement has a bigger role to play. As Santángelo says, their activism can—and must—“mobilize the region for the feminist movement.”
June 14 is already the “revolution of the daughters” for many—the daughters who have taught their parents that a woman should be able to make her own decisions about her body. The feminist movement there emerges and builds on the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and their tireless search of the disappeared children during the military dictatorship—and from the Ni Una Menos movement declaring femicide a social problem, instead of a private one.
“I cried,” Caramella admits, reflecting on her time waiting for the vote in the square. “We’ve been through a lot until here. We owe it to the feminist movement in Argentina and global movement who has sent their commitment and support. This victory is ours, the first step for all the things to come. The future will be feminist or will not be.”