This month, Argentina reached a turning point in its abortion legislation. After years of campaigning by a coalition of organizations and activists, the law on legal, safe and free abortions was finally debated in the Lower House and, after almost 24 hours of debate, a bill that would decriminalize abortion up to the first 14 weeks of pregnancy passed.
The debate in the Lower House was extensive and controversial, just like the issue being discussed. The final vote was very close, with 129 votes in favor, 125 against and 1 abstention. The law has yet to be debated and voted on by the Senate, but the fact that it made it this far for the first time is already impactful. President Mauricio Macri has stated that he won’t veto the law if it passes in the Senate, even though he is personally against abortions.
The National Campaign for Legal, Safe and Free Abortions has a very clear mission:
“Educación sexual para decidir, anticonceptivos para no abortar, aborto legal para no morir”, meaning “sexual education to decide, contraceptives to not terminate, legal abortions to survive”. Campaigners are asking for much more than the right to decide when to have an abortion. They’re asking for proper sexual education and for access to contraceptives so women can avoid having to make the decision of whether or not to have an abortion in the first place.
This vote was historical because of the level of professionalism shown by those who organized the vigil and online campaign for the day. In a country where protests tend to end in violence and the destruction of public spaces, it was moving to witness a peaceful vigil. It is estimated that around a million people joined in front of Congress to wait for the final vote count. While some people spent a few hours there and then went home, others stayed for the entire duration of the debate. They camped outside of Congress all night in the cold to show their support for this legislation. They even held a concert!
People were well-prepared to campaign online, too. A website called Activá el Congreso (Activate Congress) was set up to make it easier for people to reach their representatives through phone calls or tweets to try to convince them to vote in favor. The website can now be used to help the general public contact their Senators and express their support for the law.
There was also an online map called Aquí Estamos (Here We Are), where Argentinians who weren’t in Buenos Aires at the time could check in to show their support. Today, the map says that 18,914 people checked in from different parts of Argentina, but also from across the entire Western Hemisphere and Europe.
It has been particularly moving for me to see that even in a deeply politically polarized country like Argentina, people from different political parties and ideologies can join together for a cause. People on social media were shocked to find they could agree on something with someone they had considered an enemy because of party alliances. At a time like this, when people are losing their faith in democracy and their representatives, I think it was good for the public to see that they can make their voices heard and actually influence a government’s decision. It was refreshing to be reminded that we have enough power when we make our voices heard.
In fact, it was not only the Lower House that heard Argentinians’ voices – the rest of Latin America heard them too. This vote has had an impact on the rest of the region. Now, a week later, other countries like Ecuador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Chile and Peru are organizing similar movements and campaigns, inspired by the achievement in Argentina.
During the debate, I received messages from friends from some of these countries telling me how they wish something similar could happen in their home, both in terms of the effective organization of civil society and the fact that the bill passed in the Lower House.
This is a momentous step forward for women’s rights, and the feminist movement in Latin America is now saying, “if Argentina can do it, so can we!”