Argentina Legalised Abortion: The Impact on Women’s Rights in Latin America

Green scarf from the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion. Photo by TitiNicola, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

How did Argentina legalise abortion and what comes next?

On 30 December 2020, Argentina legalised abortion. This change came following a decade of protest and social outcry.

The criminalisation of abortion led to thousands of women and girls facing the choice of going through with a pregnancy that could endanger them, or opting for an illegal ‘backstreet’ termination. Unfortunately, the latter is increasingly common, and complications from illegal abortions are one of the leading causes of maternal death in Latin America.

Political tensions in Argentina came to a head in 2018, and since then, the issue has been debated by the Congress. As the second democratic Latin American country to pass this bill, many women are left wondering what this means for the region as a whole.

What was the situation for women before?

Abortion laws in Latin America are among some of the strictest in the world: in Chile, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, it is a criminal offence punishable by up to 50 years imprisonment, and in the remaining nations, it is only legal under certain circumstances.

This is despite the fact that the majority of Latin American states ratified the 1979 UN Convention affirming “women's right to reproductive choice”. Many of the states still use archaic laws or are unable to make changes given the influence of the Catholic Church in politics.

Subsequently, Latin America sees elevated numbers of illegal abortions, performed in unsafe, unhygienic conditions by practitioners who often don’t have proper training. These often end in complications and can be fatal: between 2011-2016, 275,000 Argentine women were admitted to hospital with medical complications after illegal abortions, a large proportion of whom were girls under the age of 18.

Clearly, this problem needed to be tackled. The lack of protection for women – disproportionately young women and those in poverty – is not only a serious medical problem but a human rights issue. In Argentina, it took both political change and a huge social movement to finally push the abortion bill through.

What changed for Argentina?

In 2019, Alberto Fernández was elected president, beating the more conservative incumbent with a campaign that focused on bringing the country out of an economic crisis. While the election was fought on economic policy, Fernández’s win opened the door for the advancement of women’s rights in the country.

Previously, abortion had been considered ‘untouchable’, having only been politically debated twice since being first outlawed in 1886. This is mostly due to the role the Catholic Church plays in Latin American politics. Religion is an incredibly important part of society, and its prevalence in politics has historically, prevented discussion on the somewhat taboo issues of abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage. This placed the burden of female healthcare on individuals, more often than not leading to a situation in which women – specifically those in poverty – suffered the most.

Indeed, a legislative debate in 2018 (which saw the issue of abortion shot down by mostly conservatives) brought the issue of abortion to the forefront of Fernández’s campaign. As a more progressive candidate, he felt less pressure from the Catholic Church and framed abortion as a healthcare issue, not just one of social justice.

However, this political change would have been even more challenging without the last five years of protest, outcry and social upheaval. Much of this can be attributed to the Argentinian feminist movement Ni Una Menos (Not one [woman] less), which started as a campaign against gender violence on social media. The hashtag #NiUnaMenos drew together a coalition of women’s groups to form a significant challenge to the government. The first organised march took place in 2015, following the brutal murder of 14-year-old Chiara Páez, by her boyfriend.

Though it began with the intention of drawing attention to gender-based violence, as the collective grew, they expanded their goals to include the advancement of reproductive rights. During their protests, Ni Una Menos adopted the colour violet, the symbolic colour of feminism, appearing in many other examples of fourth-wave feminist protests.

Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito (National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion) is an alliance of different feminist’s groups, founded in 2005 in order to get an Argentine abortion law that guarantees and expands reproductive rights. The green scarf became the reigning image of the protest movement. Often referred to as the ‘marea verde’ (green tide) this trend has spread across Latin America.

Activists from this campaign frequently protested outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires. Their continuous marches served as a constant reminder of the suffering Argentine women go through and their chants of “the rich abort, the poor die” highlighted the gap between the legal rights of women and the unequal reality. It had never been clearer that now was the time to act for the government. Ultimately, the passing of the abortion bill in December is a result of these actions.

While the ongoing social upheaval placed growing pressure on the government, the impact of coronavirus has acted as somewhat of a trigger for change. Gender inequality has been exacerbated by the pandemic: it has never been clearer that women, particularly poorer women, are not protected by the government. With travel restrictions in place, women who could previously afford to leave the country to access safer healthcare were no longer able to do so, raising awareness of the flaws in healthcare within the country.

Hope for the future?

With the landmark legalisation of abortion in Argentina, it seems the international audience is waiting for the rest of the region to follow suit. Indeed, Argentina has led the region in expanding human rights: it was the first nation in the region to legally recognise same-sex marriage (followed by Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay shortly after), and passed key legislation concerning transgender rights in 2012.

Argentina has also become somewhat of a stage on which battles over women’s rights have been contested in recent years and it seems that other countries will soon follow in its footsteps.

Already, protests have been seen in Colombia, where activists petitioned the constitutional court to decriminalise abortion. Elsewhere, Chilean women await the new constitution this year, but the topic of decriminalisation is already being discussed in congress. Despite opposition from the government, legalising abortion has been protested by feminist organisations like Corporación Humanas. This promising change mirrors the situation in Argentina, where the passing of legislation (which is so in conflict with the traditional religious values of Latin American society) requires significant activism and pressure from outside organisations.

However, within Argentina, there has already been pushback. The conservative opposition has made its voice clear, particularly in rural areas where evangelism and the Catholic Church have great influence.

As well as multiple lawsuits against the bill, doctors are being encouraged to refuse to perform abortions and encourage women to go through with the pregnancy. Reverse-mirroring the Ni Una Menos movement, a conservative Christian group with roots in Peru has gained popularity in Argentina with the hashtag #ConMisHijosNoTeMetas (Don’t mess with my children), with which it campaigns against feminist ‘gender ideology’ in schools and has spread across the region.

Whilst countries such as Colombia and Chile have seen some progress, others have seen more restrictive legislation than ever. In Honduras, congress acted to shield the ban on abortion as a direct reaction to the ‘green tide’ movement in Latin America. The country considers pregnancy termination as a crime punishable by up to 8 years in prison, and even the emergency contraceptive pill is banned. This, despite the country having some of the highest rates of underage pregnancy on the continent. Clearly, there is still a long way to go for reproductive rights in Latin America.

Argentina has been – and will continue to be – the battleground for social and human rights issues in Latin America. Its progressive LGBTQ+ laws, as well as a renewed focus on women’s rights and healthcare, make it the leader of the region. Indeed, legalising abortion was the next step for the country to take and may pave the way for further expansion of human rights.

Unfortunately, abortion rights are far from the only battle facing women in Latin America. Globally, the challenges of discrimination, domestic violence, sexual assault and femicide continue to prevent women from feeling safe and equal. Movements such as Ni Una Menos will doubtless remain necessary, shifting their focus to new issues of gender inequality.

This is, however, a step in the right direction for the Argentine government, and a huge victory for women’s rights.

The influence this legislation will have on the rest of Latin America remains to be seen; however, the changes thus far provide hope for a future in which no woman is forced to risk her life in order to make her own choices about her body.

Read more from the Americas section here.