The Run-Up to the Abortion Debate
The abortion debate in Argentina is an earthquake that splits the land in two. The ground shudders during five months of campaigning in the streets filled with crowds of campaigners wearing emerald bandanas and make-up to symbolise the pro-choice movement. Their principal argument is that criminalising the issue of abortion does not make it go away. In fact, the issue is far from being unimportant, considering that up to an estimated 500,000 clandestine abortions are performed every year in Argentina. Women are criminalised for taking ‘misoprostol’: a drug originally intended to treat stomach ulcers. However, the metal coat hangers in the activists’ hands are a sickly reminder of the even more traumatic alternative for many women, mainly living in rural or deprived areas. Unsurprisingly, these dangerous illegal abortions are the country’s leading cause of maternal deaths. The pro-lifers are also chanting in the streets; dressed in blue. Their fundamental pillar of support is the Catholic Church; whose power has been reinforced since the beginning of the Argentine Pope Francis’ papacy in 2013.
The entire nation waits in suspense on 8th August 2018, as the Senate deliberates for over 16 hours. This would be the final hurdle for abortion to be legalised after it had already been passed by the Chamber of Deputies, the Argentinean equivalent of the House of Commons. The proposed bill would endow every woman with the choice as to whether to continue or terminate her pregnancy during the first 14 weeks. This is a substantial improvement in comparison to the current law which only allows terminations in cases of rape or when the expectant mother’s physical health is at risk. This would be a historic moment for Argentina and for Latin America, where over 97% of women live under restrictive abortion laws. Then, the wave hits and the ground shudders: the Senate rejects the abortion bill by 38 votes to 31. In the streets, there are endless tears of disappointment and anger, as well as happiness and relief.
Being right in the centre of an Argentine protest was quite the experience. I didn’t really know what to expect as I’ve never been involved in a protest in England before, let alone in Latin America where protests are known to be violent. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the abortion protests. The streets were full of singing, dancing, food stalls and music. Everywhere around me I could see both men and women chanting and waving green bandanas (a symbol for pro-choice supporters) in the air. What really stood out was their passion and solidarity in their protest.
The Wider Causes and Effects
Reflecting on Natalie’s response, it is clear that the abortion debate stood for so much more than just a change to the law. The campaign was undoubtedly intertwined with the revitalisation of the feminist movement in Argentina, as well as throughout the continent. It could be said that the abortion debate triggered the feminist movement to become more concrete. At the vanguard of the debate, the ‘#NiUnaMenos’ (‘Not one [woman] less’) campaign surged over social media in response to a series of femicides, including that of 14 year-old Chiara Páez who was beaten to death by her 16-year-old boyfriend when she was
8-weeks pregnant. This triggered women to bring their issues out of the home and into the streets with their heads held high. A space has been forged in which to confront male chauvinism; one of the underlying causes of femicides, violence against women, and poverty throughout the continent. From this point forward, politicians in Argentina and beyond can no longer bury their heads in the sand when confronted with women’s issues. It is true that the abortion debate is not an isolated issue and it has continued to have an amplified ongoing impact, despite the law being rejected. The debate must be situated within a wider dialogue which The New York Times refers to as a ‘broader cultural struggle’. Curious as to what this means, I began to contact members of both sides of the debate, starting with a Skype interview with 24-year-old Franco Teves from Mendoza (the fourth largest city in Argentina):
Franco: Hi, it’s a pleasure. My name is Franco Teves and I am a political researcher in the Senate of Mendoza, Argentina. As part of my work, I was involved in the pro-choice campaign.
So, what were the main arguments of the pro-choice campaign?
Franco: We believe that universal access to safe and legal abortion is necessary because the contraceptive pill is not 100% effective and many people are allergic to condoms. It is hard to say that bringing a new life into the world is something negative but this kind of mistake can really destroy your future. In Latin America, this is a reality because it is the woman who takes care of the child. When young women get pregnant in Latin America, they are often still in education. They are marginalised from society as they can never return to school and if they lack support from their families, they will forever struggle financially. Also, as a matter of fact, many women die from unsafe illegal abortions. Normal terminations are not 100% safe but women would feel a lot more at ease if they had access to a regulated service with specially trained doctors. It is important that we make people aware of this; we must take care of these young girls.
So, what was your personal involvement in the campaign?
Franco: I went to schools, along with other campaigners, to discuss the need for the law…
… But isn’t it wrong to influence school children politically?
Franco: We don’t say that this is a political motive: this is a human need.
President Mauricio Macri’s decision to not veto a law to allow more open abortion, despite being a pro-life advocate himself, has been interpreted by many sceptics as a premeditated way of distracting Argentinians from the country’s ongoing economic problems. What do you think about this?
Franco: This is definitely not true as the abortion campaign began many years prior to the economic deterioration. This year seemed to be the perfect time to vote because the country had become more open and it was more likely to be successful.
What would have been the secondary effects of the law?
Franco: The legalisation of abortion would have led to a more open society with better sex education which would prevent abortion from being needed in the first place.
So, is abortion really the solution to the issue, or what Argentina really needs is better sex education?
Franco: I don’t believe that abortion is the absolute solution to the root cause of the issue. However, by introducing it, people will become more open-minded and will feel more comfortable about speaking out about the issues of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe sex in public. This would lead to sex education being more widely taught in schools.
Would you consider Argentina to be a ‘developed’, ‘forward-thinking’ country then?
Franco: Argentina is a very open-minded and developed country. In fact, in some aspects, we are similar to countries which are considered to be developed. Many advances have taken place in London before coming to Buenos Aires only a few years later. There is a broad acceptance of gay rights and women’s rights and after the next elections, 50% of the Parliament will be made up of women. However, we cannot be an open-minded country until the abortion bill is passed.
Thank you very much, Franco, for taking the time to speak to me today.
Charles Camosy, Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University, has conducted a plethora of thought-provoking research into the abortion debate including his book Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation. His article, The abortion debate in Argentina vs. Ireland: what made the difference? compares Argentina to Ireland, where abortion was legalised in 2018. The article primarily critiques Western media coverage of national abortion debates. For instance, Camosy argues that the case of Chiara Páez, the pregnant teen who was tragically killed, was skewed in order to support the pro-choice campaign. Páez’s pregnancy might have triggered her partner’s violence but his temperament would have possibly manifested itself anyway in an alternative situation further down the line. Legal abortion could have maybe prevented this isolated case of violence. However, it would not have attacked the root cause, or rather the misogyny which is notoriously perpetuated in Latin American culture. All women are threatened by this, and particularly young pregnant women who fall into a downward spiral of dependency and vulnerability. The Western media coverage which I came across tended to oversimplify the debate by inferring that Argentine women, except for those who were deeply religious, universally supported abortion. On the contrary, Camosy observes that a considerable number of female Senators opposed the bill. For example, Senator Silvina Garcia Larraburu considered the abortion debate as a smoke-screen for the country’s economic problems and as an insufficient measure to resolve the wider issue of gender crime.
The conclusion to Camosy’s argument is that the largely generalised and biased Western media coverage in support of the pro-choice campaign in Argentina represents ‘a classic example of neocolonial imperialism into a culture with a very different understanding of the good’. After reading this nuanced conclusion, I decided to personally contact Professor Charles Camosy to ask him to further elaborate on this argument:
Do you believe that western media coverage has used the abortion debate as a way of demonstrating neo-imperialist attitudes? Has western media depicted Argentina as a backwards country?
Charles: 'Indeed I do. Such media, not least because of its partisan bent, simply assumes that abortion rights should be accepted by all societies which care about human rights--and then uses that assumption to describe a country like Argentina (which advocates for the human rights of both the mother and the child) as regressive, based and beholden to religious authority given their refusal to yield to the orthodoxy of the developed West. But that neocolonial posture is not only morally wrong--it is, frankly, silly given, for instance, Argentina's clear progressive history with LGBT rights. There is nothing progressive about appealing to Western-style individual autonomy in ways which make the unwanted vulnerable invisible. Argentina is rightly wrestling with the complex legal and social situation in which both mother and prenatal child are treated as the people they are. Countries like Chile and Ireland--which have had far better health outcomes for women than their abortion-friendly neighbours--prove that a morally serious country need not choose between the vulnerable pregnant woman and the vulnerable prenatal child. Argentina is to be lauded for having a more expansive view of human rights--especially when compared to developed Western countries which proceed as if the massive and horrific violence faced by prenatal children ought to be ignored.'
Reflecting on the Western media coverage to which I had already been exposed, I personally found Camosy’s argument very convincing. For example, the ‘Dispatches’ video by the New York Times describes Argentina as ‘overwhelmingly catholic and conservative’ and infers that the Catholic Church continues to be the puppeteer commanding society and the government in Argentina. The video focuses on the fact that the colour of the pro-life movement is blue; the same as the national flag. This polarizes the ‘Argentinean’ pro-lifers in blue and the green pro-choice activists who are supposedly importing a movement from the outside world: feminism (of which the West likes to try to take ownership).
Camosy’s observation that the debate was a key moment for Argentina in asserting and projecting her own national identity is very convincing. Despite being known as one of the most European nations in Latin America, Argentina is also starkly different to European countries, as the abortion debate has proven. Indeed, for us outsiders in the West, it is incomprehensible how extensive gay rights coexist alongside strict abortion laws in one, united country. That is to say that Argentina refuses to force herself to fit into the mould of Western dichotomies, favouring instead a rich and multifaceted national identity.
To conclude, the purpose of this article was not to convince you to support either side of the abortion debate. Instead, I hope to have led you to consider if it is a good idea to continue to universally implement Western ideologies of feminism and human rights in other nations, without adapting them to their own culture and economy. In a country apparently offering limited sex education, would abortion replace contraception? Does Argentina have sufficient revenue to set up safe abortion clinics for all? Does one have to support abortion in order to be feminist and progressive?
Most importantly, should the West be allowed to dictate what is morally right and wrong throughout the world?
The Definite Article would like to thank Natalie Cave, Franco Teves and Professor Charles Camosy for contributing to the article.