1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Abortion bill galvanizes Argentina's youth to fight

Irene Caselli Buenos Aires
August 7, 2018

Argentina's Senate faces a historic vote to legalize abortion. Its youth have been especially vocal about it, with many young women and girls especially defying Catholic values in Pope Francis's home country.

Abtreibung in Argentinien
Image: DW/I. Caselli

Julieta Poo, a 15-year-old secondary school student, is getting her face painted green outside of Argentina's Congress while young women chant "legal abortion in the hospital." Poo wears a symbolic green bandana that reads: "Sexual education to decide, contraceptives to prevent abortion, legal abortion to prevent death." She has come to the march because she wants to make sure that her generation's voice is heard ahead of a historic vote on Wednesday in the Senate.

"During the abortion debate people have been minimizing students, saying that 15-year-old girls don't understand anything about abortion," says Poo. "We actually have opinions, and they are just as important."

Read more: Opinion: Abortion referendum — a triumph for women and for Ireland 

Poo is part of what journalist Luciana Peker has called "the daughters' revolution," a youth movement that has mobilized in support of the legalization of abortion in this South American country. "The Incredible Hulks of Argentina don't have excessive muscles, they wear glitter to invert the historic invisibility created by sexism," wrote Peker in Pagina12 newspaper.

Although some youth movements are opposed to the legislation, the generational divide has become so evident in certain cases that it has caused divides within the families of politicians. For example, the son of staunchly anti-abortion Vice President Gabriela Michetti, musician Lautaro Cura, said he was in favor of the legalization bill, while his mother declared she wanted abortion banned even in the case of rape.

A girl has her face painted during a rally in favor of legalizaing abortion in Argentina
Image: DW/I. Caselli

On June 14, Argentine deputies narrowly passed a bill legalizing abortion through the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. The final count was 129 in favor and 125 against, following a marathon session of around 22 hours. Throughout the debate, protesters — up to one million of them, organizers say — many of them young women, held a vigil outside Congress. Dozens of high schools were occupied to support the cause.

On August 8, it is the Senate's turn to debate the bill, and organizers are hoping for an even larger mobilization.

Top cause of maternal mortality

Poo says she will participate because opinions matter: She herself managed to engage her mother in a debate regarding the abortion legislation, and eventually got her backing. "My mother is against the idea of abortion. But she understood that she cannot force other people to think the way she does, or to die because of what she believes in," says Poo.

Pregnancies in Argentina can only be ended legally in the case of rape or if the mother's health is at risk. If a woman or girl decides to abort for other reasons, she can only do so illegally and by taking a risk.

Non-governmental organizations say that 500,000 illegal abortions are performed in the country each year, and some NGOs support women by providing safe abortions. But government data suggests that abortions are the leading cause of maternal mortality in Argentina, with 43 deaths registered in 2016, around 17 percent of the 245 recorded deaths.

Julieta Poo poses wearing a green bandana
Image: DW/I. Caselli

A 22-year-old mother of two, Liliana Herrera, is the latest victim of an unsafe procedure. She died on August 4, days before the Senate debate, in the northern province of Santiago del Estero.

Those who survive illegal abortions, sometimes carried out in backstreet clinics, are still at risk of being charged with a crime. Women have also reported cases of abuse by medical personnel in hospitals, from being called "assassins" to being left to wait for long periods of time.

If the Senate approves the bill, it will set an important precedent in Latin America, a predominantly Catholic region where only three countries allow abortion without restrictions: Cuba, Guyana and Uruguay. It would also represent a serious setback for the Catholic Church, which believes that abortion is unacceptable because it allows putting an end to a life.

In June, days after the vote in the Chamber of Deputies, Pope Francis, who is Argentine, denounced abortion, equating it to Nazi-era eugenics programs.

In 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American country to approve same-sex marriage, despite strong opposition from the church. But this is the seventh time an abortion bill has been introduced in Argentina's Congress.

It was President Mauricio Macri — who admitted to being against the legalization of abortion — who nonetheless gave the green light to the introduction of the bill in parliament.

Abortion comes out of the shadows

The push came from a strong feminist movement called Ni Una Menos (Not One Less), which was born in 2015 to demand better legislation against violence against women. Feminists and other observers say that it was the younger generations, with their no-nonsense attitude, who made the difference.

"When you talk about abortion, you talk about inequality, about the desire for motherhood, about pleasure, you question all the gender roles — something that is very distinctive of younger generations," says Victoria Freire, a sociologist in charge of the Observatory on Gender and Public Policy, an independent think tank in Buenos Aires. "This street movement has been crucial and can influence outcomes."

A woman has 'Ni Una Menos' painted on her chee
#NiUnaMenos is both a movement and a rallying cryImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/N. Pisarenko

"My generation has more information, and some issues are more natural for us," says Poo, the student. "I hope that my little sister will live without heteronormative prejudice."

"The reality is that abortions exist, and they are clandestine," says Laura Moses, a 23-year-old law student wearing the green bandana. "Where there is a reality, the government has to respond, and religious beliefs cannot interfere with public policy."

Read more: Pope Francis: The Catholic Church's Superman?

Although the Senate is more conservative than the Chamber of Deputies, a recent poll suggests that 59 percent of Argentines are in favor of the bill. Whichever way the final vote goes, it is clear that the abortion debate is now on the agenda, with women openly sharing their experiences of clandestine abortions on social networks and wearing the distinctive green bandanas in offices and on public transport.

"Even if the bill is not approved now, we have won this cultural battle," says Claudia Pineiro, a writer who has been campaigning in favor of the law. "We have already legalized abortion socially."