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CWA # 433, 21 February 2021
On 30 December 2020, the government of Argentina passed the bill which legalized abortion in the Catholic-majority country. The bill did not secure a large margin as 38 Parliamentarians voting in favour of the bill while 29 voting against it. The recently passed bill provides greater autonomy to women and gives them the reproductive rights to choose and decide what happens to their body.
The road to legalization was not easy and was met by intense resistance and obstacles put in place by anti-abortionists. Argentine society is largely catholic who believe that abortion is equivalent to killing an innocent life. This is a society where even the use of contraceptives was not encouraged for a long time. The pope, who is remarkably revered in the country, also questioned if it was just to eliminate a life to solve a problem. This statement encouraged people to protest against the legalization of abortion.
Back into the history: The regressive law of 1921
The previous law, passed in 1921, allowed abortion in cases of rape or when the life of the mother was at risk. The law did not cover ordinary women who do not want the responsibilities of child-rearing. This law pushed women towards illegal and unsafe methods of abortion, often leading to serious health complications and even death in countless cases. Over 40,000 women in the country undergo hospitalization each year because of unlawful and unsafe abortions. The country also has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies at 15%. According to the official statistics of the country, one in every six children are born due to teenage pregnancy and these numbers have constantly risen in the past decades. The chances for poor women to access a safe abortion was all the more unusual. Other than an inaccessible healthcare system, the women were forced to endure harsh punishments and mental abuse at the hands of society. There have been numerous instances of women experiencing verbal abuse at the operating table from nurses and doctors who disapprove of abortion.
According to the 1921 law, if a woman illegally aborted the foetus, she could be charged with 15 years in prison. There were also instances when miscarriages were mistakenly punished as illegal abortions. In 2018, the bill was introduced in the Senate but was rejected due to a lack of a majority. The victorious bill of 2020 is retrospective in nature, providing relief to hundreds of women who will be acquitted of all charges. The law also allows girls under 16 years of age to abort when accompanied by a guardian. The law, therefore, provides all girls and women with a better chance at healthcare and an option that does not coerce them to choose alternatives they don’t want to.
Into the future: Challenges ahead
The journey of providing women with the choice of abortion does not end with the approval of the bill. A far greater challenge lies in changing the perspective of the people in the country, many of whom are still fighting against legalization. The Catholic majority country has a long way to come as most laws challenges their societal and religious beliefs. Most legislations that confront the socio-religious beliefs of a society tend to take time to be accepted and recognized by the people of that community. The Argentine government will have to actively work towards normalizing the act of abortion and eliminating the stigma attached to it.
Argentina’s legalization of abortion is seen as an inspiration by pro-choice activists in other Latin American countries. A majority of the countries in the region face similar problems as Argentina when it comes to legalizing abortion. Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and some parts of Mexico have banned abortion in nearly all cases. Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama allow abortions only in cases where the woman faces a danger to her life.
There is a growing debate in Argentina as well as in Latin America regarding the rising number of teenage pregnancies as the youth now have easier access to abortion, making them increasingly careless. This is one of the most-used arguments put forth by anti-abortionists. However, 62 per cent of teenage pregnancies are unintended and removing the option of abortion forces young girls to deal with the paramount responsibility of child-rearing, often alone, for the rest of their lives. Restricting abortion does not solve the problem of teenage pregnancies.
The country must, therefore, invest heavily in educating the youth and providing teenagers with the necessary information regarding the reproduction and its consequences. Most societies taboo the topic, leaving teenagers with half information at a highly volatile and reckless age. Instead of stigmatizing the act of abortion, the country and its citizens must work towards accepting women’s inseparable right over their body and their reproductive rights.
To conclude, the law passed by Argentina is extraordinarily progressive and has paved the way for numerous developing and developed countries. The reproductive rights of women have been wrongly controlled by men in power for centuries together. Countries and communities are finally taking a decisive step towards women’s rights. Argentina will always be perceived as one of the few countries to take the initial steps towards giving back women’s reproductive rights.
About the author
Avishka Ashok is a Research Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. Her research focuses on border conflicts, ethnic conflicts and other conflicts in Latin America.
V S Ramamurthy and Dinesh K Srivastava
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