Argentina’s Lower Chamber Legalizes Abortion Up to 14 Weeks

Argentine feminists believe the time has finally come for abortion to be legalized.

Argentina’s Lower Chamber Legalizes Abortion Up to 14 Weeks
A pro-abortion demonstration in Santa Fe, Argentina, on July 20, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Stop making women’s bodies the battleground of all the political and economic issues you cannot solve.”

With these words, Argentine legislator Gabriela Cerruti closed the final speech of a 24-hour session and called on legislators to vote for the legalization of abortion throughout Argentina. Immediately afterwards, in the early hours of Dec. 11, the Argentine Lower Chamber approved a bill which would make it legal to end pregnancies up to 14 weeks—by a vote of 131-117.

This is not the first time reproductive rights activists have celebrated such a win. On June 14, 2018, the same chamber passed a similar bill—only to be defeated in the Senate two months later. This time, though, the Senate is expected to vote on the bill on Dec. 29, and Argentine feminists believe the time has finally come for abortion to be legalized.

“2020 is the year of legal abortion,” said Estela Diaz, a long-time feminist activist recently appointed as minister of women, gender and sexual diversity in the province of Buenos Aires. 

What is different this time? Why are hopes so high?


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Abortion in Argentina is currently regulated by an article of the 1921 criminal code allowing the practice only in cases of threat to the pregnant person’s life and health, and rape.

In 2005, reproductive rights activists launched the National Campaign for Legal, Safe and Free Abortion. A federal and multi-class coalition of more than 500 organizations, the campaign has been responsible for placing abortion in the societal and political agenda. Their motto since their early days: “Sexual education to decide, contraceptives to avoid abortion, legal abortion so as not to die.”

In 2007, the campaign drafted a bill to legalize abortion on demand during the first trimester and has since then introduced this legislation in Congress every two years. Most legislators and administrations have ignored this bill, until 2018, when growth of the feminist movement and the creation of a multi-party coalition to support legalization forced the bill onto the Congressional agenda for the first time.

Despite the 2018 defeat, the campaign grew stronger, buoyed by the debate in Congress and the campaign’s major street mobilizations. The movement’s symbol—the green bandana—became ubiquitous, seen all around the country on people’s heads, necks and backpacks, especially among young women and teenagers.

Argentina’s Lower Chamber Legalizes Abortion Up to 14 Weeks
A demonstration in front of the Senate of Argentina advocating for legal, free and safe abortion access. The sign reads, “For our right to decide / legal, safe and free abortion.” (Protoplasma K / Flickr)

The 2018 congressional debate made abortion a topic of conversation in every household and media outlet. Celebrities and public figures came out in droves to support legalization and public opinion increasingly approved legalization as well.

In light of this, in 2018 Nelly Minyersky, long time member of the Campaign reflected on the defeat in the Senate: “We already won. There is no law, but we won the youth, the teenagers. … They owe us the right that we won in the streets.”

Abortion has been decriminalized by society. It is only a matter of time for the legal system to catch up with society. And activists believe that moment is now.

In response to feminist demands, President Alberto Fernandez (2019-2022) introduced a bill to legalize abortion on Nov. 16—the first time an Argentine president has publicly supported legal abortion.  Abortion rights activists are optimistic because government-sponsored bills have a better chance of being approved in Congress.

While abortion has divided most political parties, including Fernandez’s Frente de Todos (translated “front of all”), his administration needs a political win given the difficult year dealing with the COVID crisis and a pre-existing recession that has been only exacerbated by the pandemic. As a result, the government may put extra pressure on reluctant senators to pass the abortion bill. In 2018, the abortion bill did not have support from the president at the time, Mauricio Macri (2015-2019).

Why Now?

Several factors make passage of the abortion rights legislation more likely today than in 2018. This time, two out of the three congressional commissions that will discuss the bill are headed by senators that support legalization.

In addition, at the beginning of the year when these commissions were set in place, the government ensured a pro-choice majority in each of them.

Finally, Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is the president of the Senate, is also supportive of the bill—despite her previous opposition to legalization when she was president of the country (2007-2015). Senate rules state that if the vote ends in deadlock, the Senate president decides, which will mean an extra vote in favor of legalization.

Argentina’s lower house vote to legalize abortion is a sharp break from the region’s restrictive abortion laws. Only two countries—Cuba since 1965 and Uruguay since 2012—and two districts within Mexico (Mexico City in 2007 and Oaxaca in 2019) allow legal abortion on-demand.

Four countries, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras, criminalize abortion under all circumstances, even when the practice is necessary to save the woman’s life. The influence of the Catholic and evangelical churches in politics, together with the conflation of womanhood and motherhood, and the consequent strong stigma around abortion, have been responsible for the persistence of outdated legislation that restrict the practice until today.

Feminist movements are on the rise in Latin America and are challenging patriarchal policies in all domains. A win for legal abortion in the Argentine Senate this December will become a new step in building a feminist society.

As a famous feminist chant says, “Live in fear, machistas; Latin America will be all feminist.”

Take Action

With a meeting of the Argentine Senate fast-approaching, the Argentine National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortions needs your help.

Show your support for women’s right to choose by sending a video to articamp2020@gmail.com by Dec. 23 with the following message:

“From [your city or country], we support the right to abortion becoming law in Argentina in 2020.”

The compiled videos will be posted the week of the Senate vote.

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About

Cora Fernández Anderson is Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of "Fighting for Abortion Rights in Latin America. Social Movements, State Allies and Institutions" (2020).