Argentina Proves the Importance of Representation and Social Activism

It is no coincidence one of the earliest and strongest supporters of gender quotas in politics is also the first major Latin American country to legalize abortion.

Argentina Proves the Importance of Representation and Social Activism
International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) and Catolicas por el Derecho a Decidir Argentina participate in the National March for Safe Abortion on September 29, 2017 in Argentina. (IWHC/Flickr)

The recent legalization of abortion in Argentina affirmed the country’s position as a regional leader in progressive social policy and underscored the importance of women politicians in these legislative advances. The success of this progressive legislation comes after the coalescence of the feminist civil society movement and the growing numbers of women legislators. 

Although there remain debates around the tokenism of women’s representation with gender quotas, it is no coincidence that one of the earliest and strongest supporters of gender quotas is also the first major Latin American country to legalize abortion.

Argentina implemented a 30 percent gender quota in 1991. In the 2019 elections, Argentina began to mandate a zipper system for party lists with a 50 percent quota in which men and women alternate in the candidate lists. The legalization of abortion illustrates the importance of women’s votes and representation for their legislative needs to be addressed. 

The National Campaign for the Right to a Legal, Safe and Free Abortion was founded in 2005 and first submitted a bill that would legalize abortion until 15 weeks in 2007. They re-introduced the legislation every year until it was finally added to the legislative agenda in 2018 and passed the Chamber of Deputies; however, despite success in the lower house, the bill failed to pass the Senate. In 2020, the bill was taken up again in 2020 and finally passed both houses. 

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Although there were more women senators in 2007 when the bill was first proposed, it took until 2020 for it to pass after over a decade of civil society campaigns focused on moving the needle on cultural and political opinions of abortion. By bringing abortion from the private to the public sphere, pro-choice organizations were able to spark dialogue and increase public support. Politicians listened to the voices of their constituents as abortion legislation gained wide popular support. Several women politicians, including current vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, noted in 2018 how their opinions on abortion evolved following the growing popular support of abortion.

A pro-abortion demonstration in Santa Fe, Argentina, on July 20, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

The data behind the Senate votes demonstrates the importance of interweaving political representation with social movements. In 2018, the law failed 38 to 31 with two senators abstaining. Fourteen women voted for the legislation and 14 voted against it with two women abstaining. In 2020, the law passed 20 to 29 with only one Senator abstaining, with twenty women voting for it, and eight against.

In 2018, women made up 41.6 percent of the Senate and 45 percent of the votes to pass the abortion bill. In 2020, women made up 38.8 percent of the Senate and 52.6 percent of the votes to pass the bill. The number of men who voted in favor of abortion remained relatively consistent (17 in 2018 versus 18 in 2020), while the number of women supporters went up by six . Three of these women changed their votes from a “no” or abstention to a “yes.” No men changed their vote to a “yes.” Despite making up a little over a third of the Senate, women made up over half of the “yes” votes, and every senator who changed their vote to “yes” was a woman. 

Growing popular support for the legalization of abortion also increased the percentage of women legislators who voted in favor of the legislation but had little effect on men’s votes. Women clearly played an essential role in the passage of this legislation and were able to do so as a result of gender quotas that ensure more equitable political representation.

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Julia Tallant is a Spring 2021 research intern for RepresentWomen. She is a recent graduate from Denison University where she double majored in International Studies and Spanish.