Julia Arana says the reason why she plans to join others marching Wednesday on the streets of Buenos Aires in support of abortion rights is simple: to support rights for all women across Argentina, regardless of economic class.
“I believe that we have to have the right to rule our bodies and decide if we want to be mothers or not,” Arana says in a telephone interview.
As Argentina’s Senate began debate on Wednesday on a bill to fully legalize abortion, the 32-year-old Arana, a journalist and communications specialist with nongovernmental organizations, is voicing an increasingly popular view in the South American country. A vote by the Senate is expected early on Thursday and if the bill passes and becomes law, Argentina will send a powerful message across Latin America, becoming the most populous nation in the region to legalize abortion.
Legalization in the heavily Catholic country that is the birthplace of Pope Francis also may send a signal of social mores slowly changing in Latin America. The Supreme Court in Brazil, home to the world’s largest population of Catholics and an increasingly politically powerful evangelical community, is currently weighing whether to allow elective abortion through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Yet approval of the bill in Argentina is far from certain, a sign of the tension that comes from slow social change across the region. Approval in the Senate appeared likely to pass until Aug. 4, when a senator said she changed her mind and now opposes the bill.
Abortion is fully legal in only three places in Latin America: Cuba, Uruguay and Mexico City. In Argentina, a law dating to 1921 allows abortions only in cases of rape or if childbirth poses a risk for the woman. Today, the number of illegal abortions annually carried out in Argentina unknown, subject to varying estimates. The Center for Criminal Studies at the University of Palermo says 350,000 to 450,000 are annually performed. The country’s government estimates the figure to be between 370,000 to 500,000 abortions, according to the Buenos Aires Times. But that estimate is from 2009 and Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, says the half million figure is closer to the truth.
The bill the Senate is currently debating will allow the procedure for the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. After the first 14 weeks, the health and rape thresholds will remain in place.
In March, Argentina’s conservative President Mauricio Macri called for the country’s Congress to debate the issue. Even though he says he opposes legalization, he also says he will sign the bill into law if Congress passes it. In June, the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house in Argentina’s Congress, narrowly approved a bill to legalize abortion.
Argentinians have mixed views on abortion. An opinion poll released earlier this year showed that 34 percent of people surveyed support full legalization while 25 percent agreed to partial decriminalization. Meanwhile, 23 percent opposed allowing abortion, while 14 percent said they disagreed to some extent allowing abortion.
The contradictions between stated views and actions extends to other civil rights across the region. According to the 2018 Best Countries rankings released earlier this year, 82 percent of people in the Americas, including Latin America, believe LGBT individuals should have the same rights as non-LGBT folks. However, a 2015 study by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported nearly 600 homicides of gay men, lesbians or transgender people, motivated by their sexual identity, between January 2013 and March 2014 throughout Latin America.
In June, an Argentine doctor posted on her Facebook page her support for decriminalization. In a subsequent interview with CNN, Cecilia Ousset spoke about witnessing patients who had tried to perform the procedure on themselves.
“My record was 18 patients in one day, more patients with complications due to abortions in precarious conditions rather than births,” Ousset, from the city of Tucumán, said in the CNN interview. “Some patients had abortions using knitting needles and we could never know who was responsible for that. They arrived terrified, knowing that they could go to jail.”
Arana, the journalist, says two years ago she paid a doctor about $3,000 to secretly perform an abortion. “You feel (like a) criminal because you have to hide it and you have to pay a lot money to do it,” she says. “You don’t know who the doctor is that is doing it.”
Abortion in Argentina can also be expressed in socioeconomic terms, Arana says. “Women with money can go to fancy hospital and pay a lot of money and low income women, go to low income doctors and die because of it, the studies clear that women are dying because of this,” she says. “This has to be a public issue because this is a social problem.”
In a written statement released on the ever of the Senate debate, the Americas director for Amnesty International called for legalization of abortion in Argentina. “We want to send a message to Argentina’s senators that the world is watching to see whether they will do right by women and end the grave suffering caused by criminalizing abortion,” wrote Erika Guevara-Rosas.