Three weeks ago, Argentina was on the brink of delivering a massive victory to women’s rights advocates there and across Latin America: New President Alberto Fernández, who won election last year, announced in early March that he planned to make legal abortion the first major priority of his presidency.
With strong majorities in Congress and increasing public support behind the effort, Argentina seemed primed to become just the fourth nation in Latin America to legalize abortion ― and the largest country in the region to enshrine the right into law.
Then the novel coronavirus hit Argentina and put a halt to those plans.
Argentina confirmed its first COVID-19 case on March 3, the week Fernández planned to introduce a bill into Congress that would legalize abortion. Four days later, Argentina became the first Latin American country to confirm a coronavirus-related death. There are now more than 500 confirmed cases there, and at least six confirmed deaths.
The outbreak has consumed Argentina and derailed Fernández’s legislative agenda. The new president shut the country’s border to foreigners and mandated a nationwide quarantine until March 31. The Argentine legislature is closed for business, and the future of a bill that activists have pushed for years is increasingly uncertain.
The outcome in Argentina, where abortion is legal only in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life is at risk, may have implications across the Americas. Fernández’s decision to prioritize reproductive rights, while expected, had instilled hope in feminist groups throughout the region that Argentina could provide the sort of breakthrough they’ve long craved in a region where 97% of women live under restrictive abortion laws, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that advocates for expanded abortion and contraception access worldwide.
Among Latin America’s independent nations, only Uruguay, Guyana and Cuba allow unrestricted access to abortion during the early stages of pregnancy. Many others allow abortion in limited cases, including when rape, incest or the health of the mother is involved, although it can still be difficult to access the procedure safely and legally even when it may not violate the law.
Recent attempts to expand abortion rights in Brazil and Colombia have stalled in the countries’ top courts, and the dominance of social conservatism and the prominence of the Catholic Church have helped thwart any effort to bolster reproductive rights across the region in the past.
But if Argentina ― the home of Pope Francis himself ― could successfully legalize it, activists believed it might kick-start a movement across the region and provide a powerful example of a country moving forward on abortion rights at a time when the Western Hemisphere’s largest country, the United States, could soon take a major step backward.
“Argentina has influence over public opinion in the region,” said Catalina Martínez Coral, the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “If the bill in Argentina passes, it will influence other countries to start thinking about this.”
Even with Congress set to begin holding virtual hearings and Fernández maintaining that legal abortion is a priority for his government, it’s unclear when ― or whether ― the legislation will be introduced or advanced, especially as Argentina’s efforts to shore up its already struggling economy and seek assistance from outside sources like the International Monetary Fund move to the top of its list of concerns.
“At the moment, it is hard to imagine discussion of any issues not related to the economic crisis, the IMF and the public health emergency,” said Benjamin Gedan, the director of the Argentina Project at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy shop.
Ardent abortion opponents have also attempted to use the outbreak against Fernández, arguing that the virus is a divine occurrence in response to the effort to legalize reproductive rights.
“They wanted to legalize death and death came to visit them,” Amalia Granata, a famous Argentine model and local politician, tweeted last week.
Reproductive rights groups, however, have countered that the pandemic has bolstered their argument, especially amid anecdotal reports that already limited abortion access has been further restricted amid the outbreak.
Argentina’s activists came close to winning abortion rights two years ago, when they drafted their own legalization legislation and pushed it through the lower chamber of Congress. But it narrowly failed in the Senate, in part, its backers believed, because then-President Mauricio Macri refused to give it his blessing.
But that fight, part of a renewed feminist movement across Latin America, energized women in Argentina, who have continued protesting for expanded rights since then. It also inspired hope that a president who supported their cause could successfully steer a legalization bill to passage.
The impact of Fernández’s backing wasn’t just political, said Paula Avila-Guillen, the director of Latin America Initiatives at the Women’s Equality Center.
“In a more philosophical way, it’s very, very significant for the movement,” she said in an interview before the outbreak began. “They had been fighting for this for over 10 years, and to finally receive the political support of the most important figure in the nation ― just imagine for a second if we were in the United States and Obama had been able to introduce a bill to codify Roe. It is important to the movement and to the nation [to say] that women’s rights and reproductive freedom is a priority.”
Although the sagging Argentine economy dominated the 2019 election fight between Macri and Fernández, the feminist movement that had emerged before the 2018 abortion vote also made its presence known. Waving the green flags that have become the symbol of Latin American feminism, Argentina’s women pushed Fernández and his running mate, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to adopt key aspects of their agenda ― including expanded abortion rights ― then helped push the leftist ticket to victory.
There are an estimated 500,000 abortions performed every year in Argentina, where about 40% of the country’s pregnancies are terminated, according to studies.
Across Latin America, an estimated 6.5 million abortions occur annually and 32% of pregnancies end in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Just one-quarter of the abortions that occurred between 2010 and 2014 were considered safe under the World Health Organization’s criteria, the institute has said, and in 2014, complications from abortion procedures accounted for 10% of all maternal deaths across Latin America and the Caribbean.
This is not about abortion, it’s about who can access abortion. We all know that the women who have money can access [it] always. This is about giving access to those who can’t.
Paula Avila-Guillen, Women’s Equality Center
Illicit abortions are particularly dangerous for poor women, who can’t access good doctors or pursue procedures in countries where it’s legal. So feminist movements and Fernández also framed it as an issue of equality ― in an address to Congress this year, Fernández called it hypocritical to continue blocking abortion when the wealthy already manage to access it.
“He said, let’s stop being hypocritical about it. This is not about abortion, it’s about who can access abortion,” Avila-Guillen said. “Because we all know that the women who have money can access [it] always. This is about giving access to those who can’t. For him, it’s always been a frame of social justice and also a frame of democracy.”
Argentina’s National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion said in a March 14 statement that it agreed with and respected Fernández’s decision to prioritize “the health of the entire population” during the virus outbreak, which it referred to as a “moment of solidarity.”
But it also said that it hoped the legalization bill would be introduced into Argentina’s Congress “as soon as possible” once the coronavirus crisis was contained, and said that it would continue working to win support for a law that would end the criminalization of abortion and “guarantee our freedom, autonomy, and the exercise of our rights.”
Abortion became such a prominent issue because millions of women took the streets to demand that politicians respond to them ― not just in Argentina, but across Latin America ― and the issues they raised haven’t been addressed. So even if Fernández’s agenda changes in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, it seems unlikely that the push for legalization will die down.
“For many years, women have been very quiet, and we have just [accepted] all of our struggles being put at the bottom of the agenda,” Avila-Guillen said. “That time is over.”