Backstreet abortions drive Argentina towards historic legalisation


Women celebrate the approval of the new abortion law in front of the Congress - Juan Ignacio Roncoroni
Women celebrate the approval of the new abortion law in front of the Congress – Juan Ignacio Roncoroni

After three weeks in hospital it was the second heart attack that may have finally taken the life of Mariela, a mother and a wife from the Argentine province of Cordoba.

Her death from sepsis early last month was caused by a backstreet abortion, the only way for many women in Argentina to terminate a pregnancy.

She is thought to be the fourth and latest woman to die in Argentina this year from the clandestine procedure in a region with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world. Campaigners hope she will be the last.

On Friday, the Argentinian parliament’s lower house voted to legalise elective abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy. The Senate will decide whether or not to pass law before the end of the year.

Friday’s final tally — 131 in favour, 117 against with 6 abstentions — sent the throngs that had gathered outside of the National Congress to follow the marathon 20 hour debate into jubilant celebration.

The sea of green scarves that symbolise the legalisation campaign are proof of a remarkable transformation in the predominantly Catholic country which is the birthplace of Pope Francis.

A woman paints her face green during a rally to demand the legalisation of abortion
A woman paints her face green during a rally to demand the legalisation of abortion

The new law, which many observers expect to be approved, would see Argentina, population 45-million, become the largest jurisdiction to legalise the practice in Latin America. It would also mark a significant milestone for the country’s women’s movement that has fought hard in recent years against Argentina’s machismo culture.

The more conservative Senate rejected a similar bill in 2018, but this time the project has the backing of President Alberto Fernandez, who has stressed that the issue is “not about saying yes or no to abortion” but about whether it should continue to be relegated to clandestinity, where women die.

“Legalising abortion saves women’s lives and it preserves their reproductive capacity, which is often affected by unsafe abortions,” Mr Fernandez said in a recorded message last month.

Abortion is currently allowed only in the event of rape or danger to the mother’s life, under legislation dating back to 1921

The government estimates there are 370,000 to 522,000 abortions annually, most of them done illegally in secret.

Every year, some 38,000 women are hospitalised due to botched abortions, and since 1983, at least 3,000 women have died from abortion-related complications, most recently last month in the province of Cordoba.

While a network of feminists, doctors, lawyers and other professionals have vastly improved access to safe procedures in recent years, the dangers created by illegality remain, and affect women differently. Those with money can pay for an abortion that is more secure; for others, even the cost of Misoprostol, the drug used for pharmaceutical abortions, is out of reach, and they may resort to needles, herbal concoctions, or knock off pills.

“They ask us what has changed in these two years to have this debate again. The response is simple: nothing has changed,” said Silvia Lospennato, a legislator, in the waning hours of Friday’s debate in the Chamber of Deputies. “And that’s why we’re back in this enclosure, and we’ll be back, all the times necessary, to demand our autonomy… No one will ever decide for us again.”

Alberto Fernandez was elected president last year with former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner serving as his deputy
Alberto Fernandez was elected president last year with former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner serving as his deputy

The journey here speaks to a wider change where women’s rights are concerned. Argentina is the birthplace of #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less), a movement that originated in 2015 following the murder of a pregnant teenage girl and which channeled fury over alarming rates of violence against women into massive protests.

One woman is killed roughly every 32 hours in Argentina — a number that has barely budged in the years since protests began. #NiUnaMenos has spread across Latin America, and drawn attention to a range of issues, none perhaps more so than the long campaign waged by feminists to legalise abortion.

The debate in 2018 marked a turning point — the green scarf that symbolised abortion rights in Argentina went from being something that women would hide, for fear of insults on the street, to something that is now worn with pride on backpacks, or wrists. It too is brandished by women across the continent, where only Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and Mexico City, the Mexican state of Oaxaca and French Guiana have legalised elective abortion.

“It was not magic. It was years of work by women,” said Rosana Fanjul, a member of the campaign to legalise abortion in Argentina, and the granddaughter of one of its pioneers, the deceased lawyer, activist and feminist Dora Coledesky.

“I’ve been at this for 32 years, so it’s very emotional,” said Alicia Cacopardo, an 83 year-old doctor who was among the original group of women that stood outside a famous coffee house near the National Congress in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, raising awareness about their bid to legalise.

It’s not a done deal and the issue continues to divide Argentine society. Pope Francis recently reiterated his opposition, and thousands of opponents to the bill took to the streets in recent weeks to try to pressure the government not to approve the law. More militant opponents have staged protests outside the houses of pro-legalisation legislators, behaviour that was roundly condemned, even by politicians who will vote against the bill.

“I am in favour of life in absolute terms,” said Natalia Villa, legislator for the province of Buenos Aires, who called the abortion debate “a smoke screen to cover a country that is falling to pieces” in the midst of the pandemic.



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