Argentina revisits tense abortion law debate | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 28.05.2019
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Argentina revisits tense abortion law debate

Argentina's parliament is again debating the liberalization of abortion laws as citizens on both sides of the argument protest en masse. After the issue has divided the country for years, could there finally be a change?

Hundreds of thousands of Argentines are set to take to the streets on Wednesday, wearing green scarves to demonstrate their support for legalizing abortion. Those involved in the movement hope that a new law will soon be passed. Seven similar bills were presented in parliament in the past — none of them came to fruition. On Wednesday, the eighth such debate will take place.

The long road to parliament

Since 1921, abortion has only been legal in Argentina in cases in which the life of the mother is in danger or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. For years, all attempts to liberalize the law have failed. In 2005, an initiative of more than 70 organizations began advocating for a woman's right to legal, safe and free abortion.

Read more: What young feminists around the world are fighting for

For most supporters, the seventh attempt to change the law looked like victory: In June 2018, the lower house of Argentina's parliament passed a bill brought forth by the initiative. Yet joy over the decision was fleeting. Just three months later, the upper house, the Senate, struck down the bill — by a margin of seven votes. Now, one year on, the movement is taking another shot at victory with a slightly modified version of the 2018 bill.

Anti-abortion protesters (picture alliance/AP Photo)

The debate has mobilized opponents of legal abortion

'Like hiring a contract killer'

Opposition to the bill is being led by the Catholic Church. Some 71% of Argentines are Catholic. Pope Francis, himself an Argentine, was unmistakable in his opposition to abortion back in October 2018: "Is it right to kill someone to solve a problem? […] It is like hiring a contract killer."

Though the pope's comments caused a stir far beyond Argentina, they also fueled the growing division between those on both sides of the abortion debate in his home country. The umbrella group Unidad Provida, for instance, is a collection of 150 anti-abortion organizations. The group claims that a full legalization of abortion would be no less than "the institutionalization of violence against women," aguing that "not only does an innocent child die in every abortion, a woman is destroyed as well." The group also claims that abortion is a symbol of societal failure, and "not an adequate human answer to society's challenges." On Wednesday, opponents of the new bill will also take to the streets. They will be wearing blue scarves in response to those worn by advocates of legalizing abortion.

Pope Francis (Getty Images/AFP/A. Solaro)

Pope Francis drew backlash for his comments on abortion last year

'A loophole in our democracy'

On other issues, such as same-sex marriage, Argentina is recognized for its liberal laws. But when it comes to the issue of abortion, the government in Buenos Aires has continued to cling to the 1921 law. For Lourdes Bascary of the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), Argentina's "macho traditions" are the reason for this conservatism. "Everything that has to do with the self-determination of women when it comes to their own sexuality has caused conflict, because it questions the existing role given to them," she says. As those pushing for the legalization of abortion have roughly one year's time to form new coalitions with lawmakers in parliament, Bascary is hopeful the law will finally be passed: "Legalization of abortion is essential so that we can close a loophole in our democracy."

Parliamentary debate in the middle of an election campaign

The current political situation in Argentina makes every decision in parliament difficult. The widely unpopular president, Mauricio Macri, is up for re-election in October. It was Macri himself who made the debate possible in the first place, yet he also clearly positioned himself as an opponent to legalization. Moreover, last year's defeat in the Senate was largely due to opposition from politicians from his party. With that, the governing party only added fuel to the fire, alienating most of its liberal base.

Read more: Strict US anti-abortion laws harm women

The presentation of this latest parliamentary proposal will be televised live. Supporters of the new bill say they will take to the streets so that Argentina can become a beacon for liberal abortion laws for the rest of Latin America.

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