The Arc of Moral Progress May Be Long, But Argentina’s Women Will Prevail

This past summer, campaigners across Argentina mobilized in record numbers to push for safe and legal abortion. After years of campaigning, the legislature heeded demands from activists and opened up debate around a bill to allow legal abortion beyond the country’s current legislation, which only allows for abortion in instances of rape or threat to the life of the mother (and even in those instance doctors are often unwilling to proceed with a termination for fear of prosecution and stigma). Although ultimately the Senate struck down the bill—after months of debate and public protests and after it passed the lower house—the activism that surged in advance of these votes was moving.

Argentina’s campaigners for safe and legal abortion organized an impressive effort to raise public awareness and mobilize thousands to the streets. Their dogged presence in the streets pushed the center-right government led by President Maurcio Macri to allow the legislative debate to take place. And they won over the hearts and votes of many politicians who lost their fear of speaking up in support of safe and legal abortion, understanding that it was the right thing do by their constituencies.

Groups like Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir Argentina lifted up the voices of many Argentinian Catholics who believe that every woman should be trusted to make her own conscience-based decisions, and that the hierarchy should not be dictating state policy. The outpouring of support by the faithful in advance of the votes illustrated what we know to be true—that, contrary to what both the secular left and the religious right would have you believe, Catholics are not monolithic in their beliefs regarding abortion rights. Indeed, the majority of Catholics in Spain (88 percent), Poland (82 percent), Italy (83 percent), Brazil (81 percent), Mexico (72 percent) and Chile (70 percent) support legal abortion under some or all circumstances. And Argentina’s debate gained momentum from developments in other Catholic-majority countries—like Chile and Ireland—which legalized abortion after widespread, public conversations around the ethics of abortion, faith and what it means to trust women with consequential decisions over their bodies.

Nevertheless, the final outcome of the vote in Argentina’s senate underscored that more work must be done to address deeply entrenched special interests. It is difficult to overstate the power that religious conservative groups wielded over this debate. The hand of the Catholic hierarchy was felt most strongly in Argentina’s northern rural areas, where local bishops placed immense pressure on their senators to vote against the law. For instance, the bishop of Tucumán province spent time during a Mass in April to call on each of the province’s representatives by name to reject the proposed legislation.

Sadly, it is in these places—poor, rural, comparatively isolated areas like Tucumán—where women suffer most as a result of restrictive abortion laws. In Argentina, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and across the hemisphere, poor women are hurt most by laws that criminalize abortion. The average income in Argentina’s northernmost regions is one-tenth that of the prosperous south—these communities are remote and isolated. Not only do rural and poor women have fewer resources to circumvent the law, but they are most likely to turn to unsafe options. According to the World Health Organization, a woman in the developing world dies every eight minutes as a result of complications from unsafe abortion. And poor women are most likely to be punished by the state when and if they do pursue an illegal abortion. According to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, most women who are prosecuted and sentenced for abortion crimes are young, uneducated, jobless and single.

Argentina’s most vulnerable women continue to suffer the consequences of the failed vote to legalize abortion. An estimated 500,000 clandestine abortions are carried out every year in Argentina, and more than 3,000 women have died over the last 25 years as a result of unsafe abortion. Less than a week after the Senate’s vote on the abortion bill, 24-year-old Elizabeth died as a result of septic shock brought on by her attempt to induce miscarriage at home using parsley. In early November, a 13-year-old indigenous girl from Chaco—one of the worst provinces for teenage pregnancy rates—died along with the baby she was carrying following an emergency cesarean. She was found to have pneumonia, chronic malnutrition, and anemia. The tragedy reignited debates about who gets hurt as a result of Argentina’s draconian abortion law. And activists and their political supporters continue to make the case that a society that respects the dignity of women must ensure that they can seek the care they need without shame and without endangering their lives.

Argentina’s activists will need to continue to invest in deep engagement to make the moral case for why women should have agency over their bodies and their lives—especially in communities rife with deep inequities and where the Catholic hierarchy is powerful. They would do well to keep in mind the lessons learned from Chile’s and Ireland’s experience. In both instances, activists found that expanding alliances across parties and social sectors was critical to a successful vote. And outreach to rural populations was crucial. Broad coalition-building grounded in common values was critical to the success of campaigners in Chile. The same held true for Together for Yes in Ireland.

This summer’s vote was but one step in the march towards inevitable progress—eventually the majority will be heard. But it will take an all-Argentina approach to win women’s autonomy.

Jon O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice, where he promotes reproductive health policies in which every woman has the right to decide the future of her pregnancy according to her conscience, and the resources and access to exercise her choice freely. A lifelong Catholic and advocate, he is a leader in developing local, national and global strategies on sexual and reproductive health and rights issues with an emphasis on social justice.

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