Abortion Reform in Argentina Recalibrates in the Face of COVID-19

AFTER A DECADE AND A HALF of progress in legalizing on-demand abortion access, the efforts of activists in Argentina have met a new obstacle: COVID-19. Since 2008, the Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion has produced a bill to legalize abortion on demand every two years to the Argentine Parliament in order to keep the drafted legislation from losing parliamentary status. In June of 2018, years of effort culminated in a historic, first-ever vote to legalize on-demand abortion pass the House, though it fell just short of passing the Senate—a bittersweet victory that saw massive turnout on the part of citizens in the capital. Including more than 700 presentations from across Argentinian society and representing one of the most extensive discussions in the history of the Parliament, the 2018 session and vote are thought largely responsible for the “Green Tide” of abortion legalization activism that has swept Latin America.

The start of 2020 saw hopes run high in Argentina that years of effort would finally end in legalization. The newly elected president, Alberto Fernández, was the first in Argentine political history to have included a campaign plank for legalized abortion. In February, Fernández reaffirmed his commitment to legalization, though held off on announcing the specifics of his proposed plan until after the March 8 International Women’s Day March—a move that aroused suspicions that this might represent an effort on the part of the newly elected president to negotiate the terms of his legislation with the hierarchy of the Catholic church behind closed doors.

Near global lockdowns generated by COVID-19 later in March brought all legislative debate and planning on the issue to a screeching halt, however. As lockdown drags on, activists now find themselves in a particular bind. Observers have credited much of the success of the 2018 efforts to mass demonstrations generated by activists in the lead-up to the vote—with a heavy presence on the ground in and around the capital working to physically represent national public opinion on the issue. Current lockdown conditions currently preclude such gatherings, though activists worry that calling a remote session of Congress to address the issue would foster too lax an environment to maintain or increase the momentum necessary not simply to decriminalize abortion, but to legalize it. However, with the hereto support of the president, as well that of the heads of the legislative commissions and the presidents of each congressional chamber, activists fear losing an unprecedented opportunity. With the Foundation for the Study and Research for Women estimating that only 20–25 percent of Argentina’s 350,000–450,000 abortions fall into the category of legally obtained, this life-threatening issue remains up in the air, as does the lifesaving legislation that could eradicate it.

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