Abortion is Now Legal in Argentina But the Fight for Reproductive Rights Continues
As women in Argentina celebrate the right to safe, legal abortion, Sian Norris looks at the network of opposition against progressive change for women and girls in the region
In a year of bleak news for women’s equality around the world, 30 December 2020 became a day of celebration for women and girls as Argentina’s Senate voted to legalise abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy.
Previously, abortion was permitted in cases of rape or when the mother’s life was at risk. This makes Argentina only the fifth country in Latin America to allow abortion on demand, along with Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay and two states in Mexico (Mexico City and Oaxaca).
The movement has, in part, been powered by “this very strong wave of young, feminist women understanding and stepping into their power and collective voice in demanding rights for women and girls,” says Viviana Waisman, president of Women’s Link Worldwide, which supports the fight for women’s rights around the world.
The legal change came after a long campaign from pro-choice activists in Argentina, whose movement was characterised by their wearing of green handkerchiefs symbolising the fight for women’s rights and autonomy.
“This law means the state recognises a struggle that has lasted for decades,” explains Maria Paz Villegas Arguello from the feminist activist group Colectiva feminista La Revuelta. The organisation campaigns for the right to safe, legal abortion and against gender-based violence.
“Now we have the state’s support, we feel our right to decide and exercise autonomy over our bodies is respected,” she told Byline Times. “It also means we can freely plan our future, guaranteeing a dignified and desired life from childhood, and that we are able to practice a free, respectful and joyful sexual life.”
Argentina, like much of Latin America, is a deeply Catholic country. In a letter last year to women protesting the legal change, Argentinian-born Pope Francis wrote: “Is it fair to eliminate a human life to solve a problem? Is it fair to hire a hitman to solve a problem?” He has previously characterised abortion as part of a modern day “throwaway” culture.
Following the bill’s passing, the Argentinian Bishops’ Conference released a statement stating that they “deeply regret the remoteness of the leadership from the people’s feelings, which has been expressed in various ways in favour of life throughout our country”.
But opposition was not confined to the Catholic Church. A recent poll found that 15.3% of people in Argentina identify as Evangelical and their churches are giving a new force to Conservative causes. According to Paz, regarding “the opposition we have faced, the movement identified with the blue handkerchief stands out, calling itself ‘pro-life’ and which is made up mostly of sectors linked to the Church, mainly the Evangelical one”. Paz went on to say that the Evangelical “movement has also grown in organisation, occupying more and more public institutions and places of political decision”.
The opposition to reproductive and sexual rights is backed by a network of global organisations – often US-based – which spend millions of dollars pushing an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ and anti-sex education agenda across Latin America.
“These are groups that are global, but act locally,” Waisman explains. “They are very well organised and very well funded. They work on whatever issue they believe attacks the morality of the family – LGBTIQ rights, abortion, it’s all connected. And if you ‘follow the string’ to their roots, you end up in one of the large organisations, often funded by the United States.”
Our rights tend to live on a pendulum so you always have to keep your guard up.Viviana Waisman
These large organisations include the biggest American spender in the region, The Billy Graham Evangelistic Society, which has spent at least $21 million in Latin American countries between 2007-14. US-based Human Life International has spent $2.3 million in Latin America since 2007 on pushing misleading information to women about reproductive healthcare.
Anti-LGBTIQ group Focus On The Family is also a big funder in the region, spending $6.2 million in Latin America between 2008-18. They were founded by James Dobson who is linked to the highly secretive Council for National Policy – a radical-right US organisation with close ties to Donald Trump’s administration. Focus On the Family has translated its literature into Spanish for a Latin American audience.
Then there’s the Population Research Institute (PRI). Although it has only spent around $1 million in Latin America over a period of 10 years, its Latin America director, Carlos Polo Samaniego, has planned and funded different anti-abortion movements from his Peru office. These include the ‘Marcha por la Vida‘ against abortion in Argentina, Chile, and Colombia, as well as in Peru itself. In a 2012 interview, Polo said that his role was to promote anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ movements in the “current battle between the culture of life and the culture of death”. He allegedly denies his son for being homosexual.
PRI has also collaborated with global religious-right campaigning platform CitizenGO, training its staff in the use of political strategy tools and communications. It is currently hosting a petition against the change in Argentina’s abortion law, which it says was made by “traitors”.
Polo is on the board of CitizenGo, along with Brian Brown – the US co-founder of the National Organisation for Marriage and the International Organisation of the Family. The latter is behind the World Congress of Families, categorised by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a ‘hate group’. The Congress brings together far-right and religious-right groups to promote an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ agenda and is linked to Focus on the Family, Human Life International and the Population Research Institute – all of which are active in Latin America.
A Snowball Effect?
The anti-rights network spending money in Latin America matters as it will now try to stymie efforts to bring to safe, legal abortion to countries beyond Argentina.
Paz told Byline Times that “we are still working collectively” to “build a feminist world, just and with equal possibilities for everyone”.
Currently, abortion remains prohibited in all circumstances in El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras. It is allowed to save the mother’s life in Guatemala, Paraguay, Venezuela, and in Brazil in cases of rape or to save a mother’s life. Costa Rica and Ecuador permit abortion to save the mother’s life or health, while in Bolivia these exceptions also exist along with in cases of rape.
The women’s movement in Argentina, according to Viviana Waisman, “has had real significance across Latin America and globally”. “I do think the movement is connected and that the positive impact of the law change in large countries can have influence in the region,” she told Byline Times.
Women’s Link Worldwide hopes that the next change will be in Colombia, where it is supporting efforts to take abortion out of the criminal code and for it to be treated as healthcare. Abortion is only allowed to save a mother’s life or health, in cases of rape or foetal defect.
But, while anti-rights groups continue to spend large amounts of money in the region, women’s rights activists face a constant battle.
Take Peru, where abortion is only permitted to save the mother’s life or health. In 2018, the country hosted a gathering of conservative Christian politicians in an alliance of Evangelicals and Catholics determined to curb attempts to promote gender equality. The website Ojo Publico revealed “links of the representatives of Parliament with groups opposed to a regional agenda that promotes the decriminalisation of abortion for rape” as well as other progressive causes.
“It’s important we keep an eye on these anti-rights groups,” Waisman warns. “Even while we get these great wins. Our rights tend to live on a pendulum so you always have to keep your guard up.”