Pro-choice campaigners are renewing pressure on president Alberto Fernández to make good on his electoral pledge to legalise abortion in Argentina.
More than 1,000 public figures, writers, journalists and artists added their names to an advert published in three Argentinian newspapers on Sunday, calling for the government to keep its commitment.
Under the banner “Legal abortion 2020”, the advert read: “The government assumed a public commitment to send a bill to congress. We need legislators to agree on a law to stop more women from dying.”
Hopes for a change in the law were high when Fernández assumed office in December. No president before had dared voice support for abortion in the majority Catholic home country of Pope Francis.
Their confidence was rewarded on 1 March when Fernández made abortion a cornerstone of his inaugural speech to congress. “Society in the 21st century needs to respect the individual choice of its members to freely decide about their bodies,” Fernández said to sustained applause as he announced he would send a bill calling for abortion under any circumstance for debate within the next 10 days.
But on 3 March, Argentina registered its first case of Covid-19. Shortly afterwards, Argentina entered a pandemic lockdown from which it has yet to emerge.
Campaigners have abstained from questioning Fernández for deciding not to endanger the political consensus he needed to navigate the pandemic by sending his potentially divisive bill to congress.
But six months later, with no end in sight to the pandemic, pressure is building on the president to deliver on his promise.
“I’m not convinced any more that fear of a socially divisive issue is the reason abortion isn’t being debated,” said political journalist and author María O’Donnell, one of the advert’s signatories. She pointed out that other thorny bills, such as a highly controversial judicial reform bill, are being pushed through congress by the president, despite widespread opposition and street protests.
“The pandemic is not a valid reason for delaying the bill,” said author Tamara Tenenbaum, who writes on love and sexuality from a feminist Jewish Latin American perspective, and another signatory. “On the contrary, the lack of legal abortion complicates the pandemic, because from what I gather it’s the clandestine abortions that end up using up beds in intensive care units.”
Clandestine abortions are one of the leading cause of maternal deaths in Argentina. In 2018, the health ministry reported that 35 women died due to complications following an abortion, an increase on the previous year.
Almost seven out of 10 pregnancies among under 19-year-olds in Argentina are unintended. The majority of these girls and women live in low-income households and the pregnancy is often the result of rape, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch in August.
Although abortion is legal in the case of rape or when a woman’s life or health are in danger, many girls are forced to take their pregnancies to full term by doctors who fear legal reprisals or who cite conscientious objection. Last year, an 11-year-old girl who was raped by her grandmother’s boyfriend was forced to give birth after health officials repeatedly delayed her request for an abortion.
With elective abortion legal in only a few jurisdictions in Latin America – Mexico City, Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and the French overseas department of French Guiana – Argentina would become the first major country in the region to legalise it should the president’s bill pass.
A previous bill to legalise abortion was defeated in August 2018.
The Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua have outright bans on abortion.