BUENOS AIRES – Argentines are waiting with bated breath in the coming hours to find out whether the Senate approves a bill legalizing abortion up until the 14th week of pregnancy, which although it is being supported by the government, it is sparking differences between government backers and the political opposition, thus foreshadowing a very tight vote.
With huge crowds of people gathering to hold a vigil at the doors of Congress in Buenos Aires – on one side a “green sea” of people in favor of the law and on the other those against the measure – the parliamentary session began shortly after 4:00 pm and is expected to last until early Wednesday morning.
“We’re not talking about ... numbers (of votes) ... but we’re showing that there’s the political will to support the law,” Laura Salome Canteros, an activist with the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, told EFE.
Meanwhile, Milagros Bitti, a member of the Young Front, which includes the Pro-Life Unity group, expressed confidence that the bill will not pass because “among many other very serious things (it’s) unconstitutional,” adding that, if it is approved, “the most probable thing is that there will be (lawsuits) brought before the judiciary.”
If the text of the bill is approved, any pregnant woman will be able to get an abortion through the Argentine health care system freely and safely until the 14th week of pregnancy, and beyond that point only if the pregnancy was the result of rape or if there is a risk to the life of the mother, which are the only two reasons one may currently get an abortion here, according to the 1921 Penal Code.
Girls age 13 or under will be able to get abortions with the consent of at least one of their parents or a legal representative, and those between 13 and 16 years of age will need authorization if the procedure would compromise their health. Females over 16 will be able to decide on their own whether or not to get one.
In addition, doctors will be able to declare that they are professional conscientious objectors and thus avoid providing abortions, although they will be obligated to refer patients to another physician who will give them an abortion or to another health clinic if all the health care personnel in a given hospital refuse to provide the procedure.
The law also updates the prison terms for people who perform or cause abortions or who consent to them outside the framework of the time limit or the allowed conditions.
Legal abortion is a longstanding demand of feminist groups and although legislation backing it has been presented on several occasions, it was not until 2018 that it was first debated in Congress after then-President Mauricio Macri – who governed from 2015-2019 – facilitated the debate despite personally being against legalizing prematurely terminating pregnancies.
That bill, prepared by the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, was approved by the lower house of Congress but not by the Senate.
Thus, the current Argentine leader, Alberto Fernandez, promised in his 2019 presidential campaign to push for a new law with the key aim of reducing the number of clandestine abortions which endanger the lives of women, especially those who cannot afford to have the procedure done at private clinics where, despite being illegal, abortions can be provided safely.
This time, a fundamental difference is that the bill was put together by the government and this has been considered a success for the president after a difficult 2020 marked by thousands of deaths and huge economic damage amid the coronavirus pandemic and the impossibility of emerging from the serious recession that has gripped the country since 2018.
According to estimates disseminated after the majority of senators took public positions on the matter in recent weeks, everything points to a very close vote with only a slight advantage being enjoyed by the “yes” faction, a scenario in which the votes of those lawmakers who have not yet staked out a stance could be decisive, although there is also the possibility that some lawmakers could abstain or be absent for the vote.
The latter is the situation for government supporting lawmaker Jose Alperovich – who in 2018 voted against legalizing abortion and is on leave from his position after being accused of sexual abuse by a relative – and former president Carlos Menem, age 90, who also voted against the measure two years ago but is currently hospitalized.
With a virtual tie in the offing, it cannot be ruled out that the stance adopted by former president Cristina Fernandez – who led the country from 2007-2015 but is currently the vice president, and who as head of the Senate can cast the tiebreaking vote if such a scenario develops – will also be decisive.
If the law is approved, opposition Together for Change Sen. Silvia Elias de Perez said that she will file a complaint.
“It’s absolutely and flagrantly unconstitutional, and therefore, if this bill becomes a law it will be a judge who will wind up resolving the matter,” she said, adding that Argentina committed itself in international treaties and laws that are already on the books “to the highest standards of protection for life from the moment of conception.”
A few hours earlier, and without referring directly to his native Argentina, Pope Francis, whose opinion always holds great sway in the political discourse of this country, posted a message on Twitter that resounded loudly in the current context.
“The Son of God was born rejected to tell us that every rejected person is a child of God. He came into the world as a child comes into the world, weak and fragile, so that we may welcome our frailties with tenderness,” the pontiff said.
The Catholic Church is one of the most visible detractors of the push to legalize abortion, just like the “pro-life” organizations promoting the right to life of the mother and the right of the child to be born.
Last Saturday, the head of the Argentine Episcopate, Oscar Ojea, publicly prayed that lawmakers “not renege on their deepest convictions” to defend human life and said that, within the “exceptional context” of the pandemic, the Church cannot hide its “sadness” over the bill.
In counterpoint and in an attempt to expand support for the measure, Fernandez sent to Congress plans for the “1,000 Days” program offering to give state aid to women who decide to give birth, to fight against malnutrition and to promote the emotional and physical development of mothers and their children through age 3.
That plan, which was also approved by lawmakers in the lower house, will be debated in the Senate after the abortion law with a sizable majority favoring it.