Legalizing abortion in the face of COVID
From Brexit to climate change the COVID-19 pandemic has seen many seemingly unignorable issues being put on the ‘political backburner’. The same can be said for arguably the most controversial debate in Argentinian politics for the last 15 years- the legalization of abortion. Before the pandemic this issue was at the very forefront of political conflict in Argentina with the current president running on the promise that he would legalize abortion. After almost a year in office, with COVID related issues being ‘prioritized’, this is yet to be delivered.
Currently, in Argentina the only exceptions to the criminalization of abortion, under Section 86 of the 1921 criminal code, are when a pregnancy endangers the life or health of a woman or girl, or when it results from rape. In all other circumstances, abortion is illegal and punishable with up to 15 years in prison. The sentence for self-inducing abortion or consenting to have an abortion goes up to four years. As outlined by a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, significant obstacles still exist for those who do meet the criteria. A variety of bureaucratic and cultural challenges, designed to greatly complicate the process, discourage those who seek to carry out an abortion through the ‘legal’ channels. These include arbitrary hurdles or waiting periods, health officials illegally requiring production of police reports to prove that a rape had been committed and, most importantly, a lack of public information which stems from cultural taboos that surround abortion in Argentina. Furthermore, as there is significant regional variation within Argentina, the lack of a standardized policy on a federal level has meant that often people are left at the whims of provincial legislation, it is notoriously difficult to access and abortion in the Northern 8 provinces.
The HRW report uses a variety of ethnographical accounts to detail the experiences of those who have attempted to access abortions. The study concluded that for wealthier women, both clandestine and legal abortions were easier to access. This is consistent with other anthropological studies in Argentina where political clientelism and material resources facilitated improved relationships during bureaucratic processes. Therefore, appreciating the intersection between class and sex discrimination is crucial in understanding how the criminalization of abortion is used as a tool to marginalize the most vulnerable in Argentine society.
The lack of a legal avenue to access an abortion has meant that every year significant numbers of women are forced to have secret abortions. The Argentinian health ministry estimates that at least 350,000 illegal abortions are performed each year, but women’s rights groups believe this number is much higher. These abortions can be extremely dangerous and are often carried out with inadequate health precautions, according to the Guttmacher institute who also warn that about 40 percent of women worldwide who have a clandestine abortion “experience complications that require treatment.” In Argentina, the latest available statistics show 39,025 women and girls were admitted to public hospitals for health complications arising from abortions or miscarriages- 16% of whom were ages 10 to 19. Again, these figures are likely underestimates due to the social stigma that surrounds the issue, many women would rather risk health problems than admit to attempting an abortion.
The election of Alberto Fernandez, who ran openly with the promise to legalize abortion in Argentina, was seen as a historic step for pro-choice activists. In 2018, a bill to make abortion legal was passed in the lower house of the Argentine Congress but rejected by the Senate. Despite this failure, it allowed for a very public discussion of a topic that had been previously relegated to the private sphere. Furthermore, strong feminist movements within Argentina have been crucial in changing public attitudes. The ‘Green Bandanas’ had huge influence not just in Argentina (where it originated) but in the whole of Latin America. As argued by pro-choice activist Ruth Zurbriggen, “people are talking a lot more about their reproductive rights, education is crucial to ensuring more women can have safe abortions.” The 2019 election of Fernandez seemed to demonstrate definitively that attitudes towards abortion in Argentina are slowly changing.
However, it has been almost a year since Fernandez’s successful election and there have been no new policies introduced to try and change the abortion law. The government has blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the delay of the bill, claiming that national unity is needed at this time and a divisive abortion debate would be damaging to the existing political consensus. This delay has been heavily criticized by pro-choice campaigners, more than 1,000 public figures, writers, journalists and artists who have added their names to an advert published in three Argentinian newspapers, calling for the government to keep its commitment. Argentinian political journalist María O’Donnell questioned the validity of the government’s claims, arguing “I’m not convinced any more that fear of a socially divisive issue is the reason abortion isn’t being debated,”. In fact, a highly controversial judicial reform bill is still being pushed through Congress by the president, showing that if there is sufficient political will, there is a way.
As has been seen across the globe, the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have resulted in increasing cases of domestic violence, and Argentina is no exception. Calls to domestic violence helplines have increased significantly and femicide rates within Argentina have reached a 10 year high. Mabel Bianco, the director of FEIM, a pro-choice research institute, explained “by putting the whole family in lockdown young girls are exposed to more sexual abuse. And women will have less ready access to contraception.” Furthermore, the restrictions on travel as a result of the pandemic and the suspension of all ‘non-essential surgery’, which abortion is categorized as, further limit access to legal forms of abortion. The UN projected that COVID induced lockdowns could lead to 7 million additional unwanted pregnancies in low- and middle-income countries. Therefore, COVID-19 should have increased the urgency for a new bill on legalizing abortion, not delayed it. As José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, argued “the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown have only exacerbated the limited access to reproductive health services, making legalizing abortion more urgent than ever.”
The fight for abortion in Argentina will continue. As the country emerges from the grips of COVID-19, it’s yet to be seen whether Fernandez comes good on his promise. As admitted by the President himself ‘abortions happen in Argentina’, however, whether they happen secretly in unsafe conditions or legally through qualified medical professionals will be the result of political and social battles yet to come.