“Se Convierte Ley” (It Becomes Law) was the announcement that thousands of Argentine women’s rights activists who had organized, protested, and advocated for the legalization of safe abortions had fought for years to hear. In the early hours of December 30, 2020, Senate approval for the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy Law, a transformative legislative amendment that will go down in history as one of the greatest achievements of Argentina’s women’s rights movement. Joining the nations of Cuba, Guyana, and Uruguay, Argentina has further changed the course of Latin America’s future by becoming the fourth and largest country in the region to officially legalize abortion. Given that the fight for women’s equality and autonomy over their reproductive, economic, and political rights is far from over in Latin America, many hope that Argentina’s momentous decision will inspire a shift whereby the granting of these essential freedoms becomes the status quo.
Latin America’s remarkable women’s rights movement, otherwise known as La Marea Verde (Green Wave), is led by the grassroots leaders of initiatives such as #NiUnaMenos, which was originally founded in Argentina. While the courageous efforts of these activists deserve recognition and celebration in light of their recent victory, it is also essential to consider the history of institutional resistance to full reproductive rights for women in Argentina. A consideration of Argentine religious and political spheres not only reveals the long and complicated historical path to the country’s recent landmark decision but can also highlight potential avenues for addressing the continued struggle for women’s rights and equality throughout the region.
Political Influence of the Catholic Church
Throughout the early 21st century, left-wing administrations in Argentina implemented several progressive socio-economic and reproductive rights reforms in an effort to shift the country away from the problematic realities of previous neoliberal economic schemes. However, notably absent from these progressive reforms was any decisive action on the legalization of abortion, despite the fact that access to termination procedures is an integral part of reproductive rights. As contradictory as this may seem, a long history of regional resistance to full reproductive freedoms for women, along with the strong influence of the Catholic Church in Argentina meant that abortion legislation faced several more obstacles than its other policy counterparts.
The Catholic Church has long had a closely intertwined relationship with politics in Argentina, serving as a powerful and politically influential institution for hundreds of years. In the 20th century, this position became increasingly complicated, with the Church’s connections to the military junta government in the 1970s leading to public questioning of its legitimacy that remains to this day. This being said, Catholicism continues to play an extremely persuasive role in the decision-making arena of Argentina’s political sphere, especially in regard to reproductive rights.
In 2012, the Supreme Court of Argentina passed legislation clarifying that any woman, regardless of competence, may legally seek an abortion if the pregnancy was the result of sexual abuse or rape. This decision overturned a previous stipulation outlined in Article 86 of the Argentine Criminal Code, which stated that an abortion could only be legally obtained in the case of rape if the victim was deemed “mentally deficient.” The prominent Argentine Archbishop José María Arancedo vehemently expressed the Catholic Church’s opposition to the ruling, claiming that “there exists no justification to end an innocent life, even in the sad case of rape.” Such strong stances of opposition would continue to shape the discourse and policy decisions surrounding further abortion legislation in Argentina for the following eight years.
#NiUnaMenos and the Green Wave
In August 2018, thousands of women’s rights activists gathered outside the National Congress building in Buenos Aires as Argentina’s Senate considered a bill that would comprehensively legalize abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. The crowd was markedly characterized by the green bandanas adorned by pro-choice activists, symbolizing the unity, strength, and perseverance that has defined the women’s rights movement across Latin America. Many of these activists are proudly part of what is known as La Marea Verde (“The Green Wave”), a multi-country campaign that has demanded the urgency of new policies designed to address violence against women, economic inequality, and full reproductive rights. Although the 2018 abortion bill was ultimately rejected by the Argentine Senate (38-31 with two abstentions), La Marea Verde was simultaneously gaining considerable momentum which would set Argentina on the path to a landmark victory in 2020.
La Marea Verde itself has strong roots in a collective known as #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less), a grassroots campaign founded in 2015 to address the epidemic of violence against women in several South and Central American countries. The movement has since expanded to address a myriad of women’s rights issues such as femicide, economic inequality, and reproductive autonomy across the entirety of Latin America. In Argentina, lobbying campaigns organized by #NiUnaMenos members and various other grassroots activists ensured that the nation’s Congress would have to turn its attention to these vital issues, as the tenacious efforts of activists left little room for bureaucratic distraction and avoidance. Ultimately, these initiatives not only held Argentine representatives accountable to their constituents but also paved the way for the passing of vital legislation relating to women’s political and reproductive rights.
The Future of Reproductive Rights in Latin America
The legalization of abortion in Argentina stands as one of the most important watershed moments in the region’s recent history, inspiring further affirmative action that had previously been blocked by legislative passivity and institutional oppression. The transformative potential of the Argentine Senate’s decision has led regional experts such as Human Rights Watch Director José Miguel Vivanco to predict a possible “domino effect” of legislative action on reproductive rights throughout other Latin American countries.
Although Argentina’s recent legislative victory is an inspiring progression, severe limitations on women’s reproductive and political rights prevail across Latin America, a situation that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a 2020 United Nations report, lockdowns across Latin America have placed even more restraints on access to vital reproductive care, and have simultaneously sparked a domestic violence crisis, with calls to emergency hotlines up by 50% in several countries. Thus, many local activists have emphasized the need for continued international attention surrounding women’s rights issues, as such support is essential for enabling more countries in the region to take strides towards an era of gender equity and reproductive empowerment.
Such shifts toward greater gender equity in the region would certainly not be plausible without the incredible contributions of grassroots movements such as La Marea Verde and #NiUnaMenos. Not only did these activists tirelessly advocate for reproductive rights within Argentina, but they also propelled meaningful political activism beyond the country’s borders, facilitating political change for hundreds of thousands of women across Latin America. So as Argentina’s recent win for gender equality and reproductive rights is revered across the world, it is imperative that our collective historical memory acknowledges the tireless efforts of local and regional women’s rights activists who made such a resolution possible.