Argentina Legalizes Abortion: A Historic Moment for Women

Latin America has long been hostile terrain for abortion rights advocates, even in recent decades as legal abortion became accessible in most of Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. However, a grassroots feminist movement claimed victory in Argentina when the Senate legalized abortion in a surprisingly resounding vote, making Argentina the first large country in Latin America to take this historic step. Why is this happening now? The women’s rights movement has taken on new urgency across Latin America over recent years, nowhere more so than in Argentina. The movement started in 2015 after the murders of women, including the gruesome killings of a 14 and 16-year-old. This grew into a broad national campaign for Ni Una rights Menos or not one woman fewer. Making abortion legal became its primary political goal, chiefly driven by young activists who have become well-organized and vocal, staging repeated demonstrations. The #MeToo movement which erupted in the United States in 2017 and spread worldwide has added fuel to those efforts. In some countries, like Mexico, the primary focus has been on violence against women. Nevertheless, in Mexico, a state-by-state effort to make legal abortions more accessible has gained ground. The state of Oaxaca last year becoming the second, after Mexico City, to legalize this procedure. Moreover, rising secularism in Argentina and many additional countries, particularly among the young, has lowered barriers for liberal causes. A significant factor in Argentina was the election of President Alberto Fernández, one of the most socially liberal leaders Latin America has had. He has campaigned for abortion rights, gender equality, and gay and transgender rights, and last month he legalized home cultivation of marijuana for medical use. What are abortion laws like in the rest of Latin America? About two dozen countries around the world have laws that not only prohibit abortion but do not make any exceptions, according to groups that closely monitor access to it. Those countries are primarily in the Americas and Africa, including Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, and Suriname. The ban enforced with zeal, with women whose pregnancies do not end in the birth of a healthy baby sometimes falling under suspicion, and those convicted of having abortions sentenced to decades in prison. Furthermore, from Mexico to Chile, a predominantly Roman Catholic region, most countries outlaw abortion, even early in pregnancy, but make exceptions when the pregnancy endangers a woman’s life. Some countries also allow abortions, up to a certain point in gestation, when the pregnancies result from rape or incest or severe fetal abnormalities. Chile joined those countries in 2017 when it rolled back one of the world’s strictest abortion bans. Paraguay drew international attention when a pregnant 10-year-old girl said to have been raped by her stepfather, could not have an abortion because her life was not in danger. The case led to calls for the conservative government to liberalize the law, but it saw no change. Additionally, across Latin America, barely three countries have legalized abortion for any reason early in pregnancy, and all three are small and are outliers in other essential ways. Cuba, ruled by the Communist Party for more than 60 years, legalized abortion in the 1960s. Guyana, a former British colony with a large non-Christian, South Asian population, took that step in the 1990s. And Uruguay, where about 40% of people report having no religious affiliation, did so in 2012. What is the role of religion? Historically, more than 90% of Latin America were Catholic, and the Church's solid opposition to abortion exerted a powerful influence over not just religious beliefs but also governments, ethical and social norms. However, their grasp has been weakening steadily since the 1970s, and by 2014, fewer than 70% of Latin Americans called themselves Catholic. The sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Church have hit as hard in Latin America as in many other parts of the world, driving some people away from them and weakening its moral authority. A growing number of people who still identify as Catholic, particularly the young, are not observant and feel comfortable going against their teachings. Although evangelical Protestants, who often take a more conservative line on social issues, are increasing in numbers and now make up about one-fifth of Latin Americans. That helps explain why Central America, where evangelical churches are healthiest, has some of the strictest abortion laws. Simultaneously, the number of people who have no religious affiliation, and tend to be liberal on social issues, has also risen. However, their ranks remain much less than the evangelical population. Will the movement spread beyond Argentina? The debate in Argentina has drawn tremendous attention in Latin America and is sure to prompt discussion in other countries. Recent efforts to ease access to abortions successfully show a country grappling with shifting social, cultural, and political changes. The push to reform has often come from grassroots movements. Leftist Presidents who took power in Latin America over the prior two decades revealed little or no interest in improving abortion laws. These Presidents include Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, and Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. Bolivia’s leftist government decriminalized early-term abortion in 2017 for “students, adolescents or girls” and repealed the change weeks later. President Fernández of Argentina, as a leftist who made access to abortion one of his top priorities, represents a new generation and a change from his predecessors.

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