Meet the Public Official Behind Argentina’s Landmark Abortion Ruling: Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Minister of Women

Meet the Public Official Behind Argentina's Landmark Abortion Ruling: Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Minister of Women
Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta—Argentina’s minister of women, genders and diversity—was behind the country’s landmark decision on abortion. (Eli Gomez Alcorta @EliGAlcorta / Twitter)

On Dec. 29, 2020, Argentina legalized abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy—becoming the third country in Latin America (after Cuba and Uruguay) to do so. This landmark victory was the result of many years of arduous activist work to raise awareness of the harm that comes with the criminalization of abortion.

In 2005, the women’s movement launched the Campaign for Safe, Free and Legal Abortion (La Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal Seguro y Gratuito), which grew more powerful, reaching massive support across the country in the past three years. From there, activists drafted a bill and sought the support of legislators to advance abortion reform in Congress. In 2018, the campaign’s bill was discussed in Congress for the first time. It passed in the Lower Chamber but was rejected in the Senate by a vote of 38-31.

In 2019, a new administration was elected, led by President Alberto Fernandez, who ran on a women’s rights platform, including pledging his support for abortion reform. He also created the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, to include a gender perspective across government policies—led by Minister of Women, Gender and Diversity Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta.

In November of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, the government delivered on its promises and introduced a bill to legalize abortion, in line with the demands from the women’s movement which was passed by Congress at the end of 2020.

Ms. reporter Cora Fernández Anderson, assistant professor at Mount Holyoke College, conducted an online interview with Gómez Alcorta to discuss the recent abortion reform and the role of this new ministry in the process. From the challenges to implement the new law, to new topics such as the gender gap in caregiving tasks, Gómez Alcorta shares her experiences and plans to tackle the ministry’s feminist agenda. 

Meet the Public Official Behind Argentina's Landmark Abortion Ruling: Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Minister of Women
 Argentina’s abortion legislation is part of President Alberto Fernandez’s broader efforts to elevate women’s rights in his government’s policy agenda, and the fulfillment of progressive campaign pledges which touched on gender equality and LGBTQ rights. Pictured: Gómez Alcorta, Argentina’s minister of women, gender and diversity, with President Fernandez. (Eli Gomez Alcorta, @EliGAlcorta / Twitter)

Cora Fernández Anderson: Could you introduce the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity that you lead? What was its role in legalizing abortion in Argentina?

Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta: The Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity was created recently on December 10, 2019, and its main function is to work on policies that are aimed first at reducing gender-based violence—which is a pressing problem in the world, in the region and in our country. And to carry out policies that reduce or eliminate gender inequalities.

So, when we talk about violence, we are talking not only about violence against women, but violence against sexual diversity. We understand gender inequality as the other side of the coin of gender violence: the lack of economic autonomy, the lack of autonomy in our decisions, the lack of autonomy in our bodies, result in violence. And we always speak of violence in plural, because in addition to the more easily visible violence—such as physical violence—there is also psychological violence, economic violence, institutional violence, media violence, symbolic violence, labor violence that have an enormous impact as well.

We believe that without a ministry, it is very difficult to include a gender perspective in all the policies of a state, and we think that’s the main reason behind the creation of the ministry: that there is a public works plan with a gender perspective, a production, economic and transportation plan with a gender perspective.

Regarding the role that the ministry had [in the legalization of abortion], together with the legal and technical secretariat and the Ministry of Health, I was part of the team that drafted the government’s bill. We all worked as well to introduce the bill in Congress and obtain the needed consensus so that we could say today we have a law. We worked with legislators from the government’s party but also with those from the opposition—this is something we want to highlight.

Fernández Anderson: How would you explain the process that led to the legalization of abortion? What changed in Argentina to make this possible?

Gómez Alcorta: Well, first I think that in a way nothing has changed—meaning that the deaths resulting from clandestine abortions did not diminish. There were 39,000 hospital admissions in the public health system in 2019 as a result of clandestine abortions. It’s been already 14 years since congress passed the Comprehensive Sexual Education law—a key factor to prevent unwanted pregnancies—but there have been huge obstacles to implement it, and we still have high rates of unwanted pregnancies among adolescents. More than 80 percent of teenage pregnancies are unwanted. In a way, nothing has changed.

In another sense, what did change was the level of organization and mobilization on the part of the women’s movement in Argentina. The possibility of sustaining the struggle for so many years allowed the abortion bill to be discussed for the first time in Congress in 2018. In light of the ‘green tide’—[the massive mobilization of mostly women carrying green scarves demanding legal abortion]—a high official said: ‘We looked at the crowds in the streets and didn’t understand where they came from; how come there were two million people demanding legal abortion?’ This was another factor that explained the creation of the ministry.

Since June 3, 2015, the women’s movement, which have always had an important role in Argentina, became massive, and in particular facing a neoliberal government [Mauricio Macri’s government 2015-19], it took on the place of a key anti-neoliberal actor. This unprecedented growth of the feminist movement made the 2018 discussion of the abortion bill possible, and one year later in 2019, made it possible for the issue of abortion to enter the presidential campaign, something that had never happened before. Then we see the emergence of a candidate (Alberto Fernández) who strongly believes that it is unbelievable that in the 21st century women cannot decide over their own body. But this was more of a contingency, the growth of the movement has been a historical process that without doubts is what allows us to get to where we are today.

“This unprecedented growth of the feminist movement made the 2018 discussion of the abortion bill possible, and one year later in 2019, made it possible for the issue of abortion to enter the presidential campaign—something that had never happened before.”

Fernández Anderson: The bill was signed into law on January 14. What are the obstacles that your ministry and the government have identified in terms of its implementation?

Gómez Alcorta: Those who opposed the legalization of abortion made already their first judicial presentation to declare the law unconstitutional. We knew this was going to happen, even one senator stated they would do it when she voted against legalization. This doesn’t have us worried, but it will imply a large investment of time and resources to fight this. But the process of implementation to make abortion access equal across the country will be arduous.

There are some places in which there will be no problems, but some others will require very meticulous and constant attention: Identify the public health services willing to provide the service, and we know that there are because there is a network of health professional for the right to choose that is present throughout the country, and they are the ones that were providing abortions under the previous law. The main question mark now is what will be the response of the private health care system. In the places in which most health professionals declare themselves conscientious objectors, we will have to organize clear referral networks so as not to hinder access to abortion.

The implementation work is done by the Ministry of Health. The one in charge is the Program on Sexual and Reproductive health, which has already been working to provide legal abortions under the previous legal framework.

Meet the Public Official Behind Argentina's Landmark Abortion Ruling: Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Minister of Women
“El aborto seguro, legal y gratuito es ley,” tweeted Fernandez. “Safe, legal and free abortion is law.” (Alberto Fernández, @alferdez / Twitter)

Fernández Anderson: In closing, a more personal question. You identify yourself as a feminist. How did you arrive at feminism?  

Gómez Alcorta: I think I was always a feminist. I always felt the gender injustices from a very young age. I used to get angry about things that happened between my mother and father, or differences in how brothers and sisters were treated. I read those events through a gender lens. It is not fair that because I am a woman, I am not treated equally … I think that it came very naturally, but later I was able to apply a theoretical framework and explain those events. I am a feminist and human rights activist. I remember the first time I wrote an academic article and chose to define myself as a feminist lawyer. It was not the first time I felt feminist but there was something about reaffirming this identity in a particular moment.

In the past years in our country, there is something very beautiful happening with feminism, because it goes beyond the logic of representation. Unions for example have representation. The women’s movement doesn’t. There is some element of anomie in the movement. If you have been to one of the Women’s National Meetings [Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres], you understand what I am referring to: There is perfect synchrony in the middle of the most absolute anarchy, but it works. There is almost something magical about it.

Everybody is now asking what is the next issue feminists will be focusing on, because the demand for legal abortion was one that provided strong unity within the multiple and diverse feminisms. For me the most beautiful thing for those like me who study these processes is to analyze the process through which the next big issue of feminism is defined. Because this is not a matter of going to an assembly and voting, this doesn’t happen this way, we will have to be alert to the processes of constructing of a new agenda.

On average we work four hours more than men on caregiving activities—that is 1,400 hours more a year. When we ask why is it harder for women to become university presidents, athletes, CEOs, union leaders or presidents—well, give me those 1400 hours back, and then we’ll talk.”

Fernández Anderson: In your opinion, what will be the next issue the feminist movement should tackle?

Gómez Alcorta: For me is the unequal distribution of domestic and caregiving tasks. It is impossible to put an end to gender inequality and gender violence if we do not address this issue. If we continue to be the main caregivers in society, we won’t be able to eliminate the disparities.

On average we work four hours more than men on caregiving activities—that is 1,400 hours more a year. When we ask why is it harder for women to become university presidents, athletes, CEOs, union leaders or presidents—well, give me those 1400 hours back, and then we’ll talk.

There is also a class dimension to this issue. Because women that can outsource caregiving, increase their availability, but those who cannot do it have even more time devoted to these activities. There is a double deficit based on class and gender which reproduces inequality. This issue is the main reproducer of patriarchy.

Do you want to work out of the house? Great, do so but you are the one that takes care of our child when he is sick, you are the one that misses days at work. This is a much more complex issue than that of abortion. You cannot solve it with a law or a particular demand. We need a very strong political will; we need deep transformations with investments in infrastructure and changes in cultural norms.

But a more equal society can only be built with a better distribution of caregiving tasks. This is our priority in the ministry. Argentina has many policies to address violence against women and sexual diversity. But there is nothing on this new issue. 

Meliss Arteaga helped with the translation of this interview.

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Cora Fernández Anderson is associate 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).