Argentine Women Have Lost the Battle But Not the War
The recent news of the Argentine Senate rejecting a bill to legalise abortion up to 14 weeks is a difficult blow for women. Hot on the heels of the Irish referendum, there was high hopes for Argentina to be the first country in Latin America to liberalise their abortion laws. In the past number of months, a grassroots movement has spread throughout the country, with the emerald green of the pro-choice activists becoming as ubiquitous in Argentina as the Repeal jumpers in Ireland. Once again, Margaret Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale proved that art imitates life, with activists donning the red cloak and white hood that symbolises their lack of control over their own bodies. All of the hallmarks of the Irish referendum seemed to be happening again, so why wasn’t it successful this time around?
Argentina, like the Republic of Ireland, is by all intents and purposes, a Catholic country. Estimates of the percentage of the Argentine population who identify outwardly as Christian range from 70-90%. The most recent census in the Republic of Ireland puts those who are Catholic in name at 78%. However, it is unlikely that all of these Argentine Christians are actively practicing, and much more likely that it echoes Ireland, with people paying lip-service to their birth religion at Christmas and Easter, because your grandmother will kill you if you don’t go to mass at least then. Therefore, the high Catholic population (from which the current Pope also hails) shouldn’t necessarily mean an abortion law won’t pass in Argentina if it did in Ireland.
The legal processes by which the Irish and Argentine governments attempted to legalise abortion were very different. It was necessary for the decision to be put to the people in a referendum in Ireland, as required by our constitution. No such referendum was required for the Argentine bill, which only needed to be put through the two houses of government. Herein, perhaps, lies the problem. A decision, made by a few, which impacts many. A small number of senators deciding on the fate of millions of women, 3,000 of whom are reported to have died as a direct result of the strict abortion laws since 1983. The large grassroots movement, who proved the appetite for change in the country, were not provided the same opportunity as Irish women to enable this change.
Without a referendum, the decision fell to a few Senators, and the efforts of the pro-choice activists were limited. The pro-life campaigns, which spouted vitriol and garnered much criticism in the build up to the Irish referendum, were also restricted. Without a referendum, it is possible that the anti-choicers didn’t have enough time to show their true colours, to expose just how anti-women they are, and to trip themselves up in their own circular arguments. They didn’t have the chance to turn the country against them, and instead only needed to rely on a small number of politicians to fear change, which is a pretty safe bet. The combination of all of these factors may contribute to explaining why this battle was lost by the pro-choice campaign.
Of course, I have my rose (or is it emerald?) -tinted glasses on following the overwhelming success of the Yes campaign in the Irish referendum. There is no guarantee a referendum would have passed the bill that the government failed to in Argentina. However, there has, over the past few years, been a steady growth in feminist ideology in the country. In December 2017, Argentina passed a law requiring gender parity in their houses of government, which will be in place by the next legislative elections in 2019. This shift in balance away from a male-dominated government may set the stage for the next battle in the war for reproductive rights, in favour of the pro-choice activists. For now, all those who believe in the importance and necessity of free, safe, legal abortion mourn for our sisters in Argentina, for their war is not over. It has simply begun.