Argentina: The Dawn of a New Era for Abortion

On December 30, 2020, Argentina became the largest Latin American country to legalize abortion. The country will now allow free and legal abortion access up to the 14th week of pregnancy, with restrictions still placed on terminations after 14 weeks.

This marks a historic moment for the people of Argentina and hopefully sends a rippling trend throughout the rest of Latin America. With unsafe abortions still rampant, Argentina taking the first big step is a potential turning point for the women and constituents of Latin America.

The fight for legalized abortion was a long and tumultuous one for Argentina. In the past 15 years, 9 bills have been proposed to legalize elective abortion, the most recent one just narrowly failing in 2018. Since 1921, Argentina has had a particularly strict ban on abortion, allowing access only in the cases of rape, danger to the woman’s life, or if the woman was mentally disabled. These exceptions were made even stricter by a language change in 1984 that then meant only “grave” threat to a woman’s life or the rape of a mentally disabled woman were permissible. Argentina has cited approximately 40,000 unsafe abortions result in hospital care each year, numbers that are sadly not exclusive to just Argentina.

With new laws now in place, Argentina has hopefully set a new precedent for neighbouring countries that still place a stronghold on abortion rights. Argentina joins Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and Mexico City as the only areas in Latin American where abortion is legal. The rest still maintain stringent abortion restrictions, with El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Suriname banning it altogether.

While the support of Argentinian President, Alberto Fernandez – who previously asserted abortion as “a matter of public health” – surely helped this most recent bill pass through the Senate, Argentina has the tenacious work of feminist organizations to thank for this new legislation. Women on Web first started working with Argentinian communities in 2005, when the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion (Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito) was first created. The organization would become the first seeds sown of a massive women’s movement. In 2015, a campaign called Ni Una Menos (“Not One Less”) was formed that quickly galvanized a sweeping social movement and brought gender-based violence and reproductive rights into public discussion. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a brutal act of femicide against a woman that triggered a flooding response from hundreds of thousands of people and grassroots organizations. Over the years, the Ni Una Menos campaigns have brought out increasingly larger numbers, finally forcing public officials to relinquish the grip on abortion that has put so many lives in danger.

What Argentina has hopefully done in making this landmark shift, is force other countries to re-evaluate their constituents’ needs. Some have already taken steps in this direction: Chile, while still illegal, has eased up on its restrictions in recent years; Colombia is in the midst of proposing a new legalization bill; and Brazil also has an upcoming court case to review its abortion laws.

Arguably, one of the greatest obstacles for abortion reform in Latin America has been the Catholic Church. With long-standing and deeply rooted connections to many professional and political facets, religious influence has kept abortion dangerous for decades. More recently, however, although still deeply entrenched in Latin American cultures, research shows an overall decline in Catholic identity, meaning shifting winds may be swooping in. The fuse between church and state is one that clearly has dire public health consequences: In Brazil, approximately 500,000 women under 40 – amounting to about 1 in 5 – will have an illegal abortion and about half of those will wind up needing medical care. In Colombia, only 10% of abortions performed nationally are done in a professional health care setting. About 130,000 complications happen each year due to unsafe abortions and 10% of maternal deaths are due to clandestine abortions. In Chile, it’s estimated between 60,000 to 300,000 unsafe abortions occur each year, and despite nearly 97% of Latin America prohibiting abortion, approx. 32% of all Latin American pregnancies end in abortion.

The picture this paints is unmistakable and reflective of the reality of abortion worldwide: it does not make a difference if abortion is legal or not. Women will still do what’s necessary to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The only actions caused by restricting abortion are clandestine methods and desperate measures that only burden the health care system, regardless of legal status. The outcomes of prohibitive legislation are potentially harmful from all sides, resulting in economic struggle and disparity, additional strain on healthcare services, and harm, injury or death to pregnant individuals. We implore the states of Latin America to do the right thing and follow Argentina’s lead: legalize abortion for the good of nations.

To learn more about Argentina’s and Latin American countries’ abortion laws and local resources, please visit Women on Waves local service and abortion law directory.

For access to safe abortion with pills, please click here.