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Explained: Why Argentina’s legalisation of abortion is historic

Activists are hopeful that the passage of this law in Catholic Argentina will have an impact in other countries in Latin America.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: December 31, 2020 7:46:23 am
argentina abortion, argentina abortion law, Alberto Fernández, abortion in latin america, catholic church abortion, express explained, indian expressAbortion-rights activists hold hangers, that symbolise illegal abortions, and signs in Spanish reading 'Goodbye', outside Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 30. (Photo: AP)

Argentina’s Congress legalised abortions up to the 14th week of pregnancy this week, in what was a ground-breaking decision in a country that has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws.

This change is historic and its implications may be witnessed beyond Argentina, in Latin America at large.

Women, activists and supporters of the bill flooded the streets of Buenos Aires Wednesday, cheering and crying following the ruling, while critics and opponents were seen staging their own protests against it.

What does this bill mean?

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Prior to the passing of the bill, abortions were only permitted in cases of rape or when the woman’s health was at serious risk. Activists have been campaigning for years, calling for an overturning of this law that has been in existence since 1921.

Two years ago, the country had almost passed the abortion bill, which was narrowly defeated.

The bill calls for greater autonomy for women over their own bodies and control of their reproductive rights, and also provides better healthcare for pregnant women and young mothers.

Why is it a landmark bill?

Prior to this, girls and women were forced to turn to illegal and unsafe procedures because abortion was against the law in Argentina. For girls and women from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, the scope of access to safe medical procedures for abortion was even narrower. According to Human Rights Watch, unsafe abortion was the leading cause of maternal mortality in the country.

The Catholic Church and the evangelical community wield immense power and influence in Argentina and had strongly opposed the passing of this bill. In fact, for several decades, following the beliefs of the Catholic Church, even the sale of contraceptives was prohibited in the country.

There have been countless cases that explain why this bill is important for women in Argentina. In 2006, the family of a 25-year-old survivor of rape with severe physical and mental disabilities petitioned the court for judicial authorisation for abortion. Although the court granted permission, the procedure was blocked by a Catholic organisation that had sought an injunction. The abortion could proceed only after the family appealed the injunction and the court allowed it.

What did lawmakers say?

The passage of the bill involved a marathon session where 38 senators voted in favour of the bill, with 29 against and one abstention. The bill had been one of President Alberto Fernández’s campaign promises where he had said he would reintroduce it after it was rejected in 2018. Fernández had said: “I’m Catholic but I have to legislate for everyone.”

After the passage of the bill, the president tweeted: “Today, we’re a better society, which widens women’s rights and guarantees public health.”

According to a BBC report, Vilma Ibarra, legal and technical secretary for the presidency who drafted the law, was overcome with emotion, saying: “Never again will there be a woman killed in a clandestine abortion.”

But lawmakers who voted against the law continued to defend their stance. “The interruption of a pregnancy is a tragedy. It abruptly ends another developing life,” BBC reported Inés Blas, a lawmaker who voted against the law, as saying.

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What impact will this have in Latin America?

Activists are hopeful that the passage of this law will have an impact in other countries in Latin America. At present, abortions are illegal in Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. In Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana, and in some parts of Mexico, women can request for an abortion, but only in specific cases, and each country has its own laws on the number of weeks of pregnancy within which the abortion is legal. The countries also have varying degrees of punishment and penalties meted out to girls and women, including jail.

Women’s rights activists have acknowledged that despite the new law in Argentina, the fight is far from over in the region. Anti-abortion groups and their religious and political backers have attempted to stall any progress in the process. Most recently, in Brazil’s conservative president Jair Bolsonaro had vowed to veto any pro-abortion bills in the country.

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