BUENOS AIRES – Just two years ago, organizers of an exciting women’s movement in Argentina were handed what felt like a bitter loss, and their efforts to legalize abortion were rejected in the Senate after intense lobbying by the Catholic Church.
This week, after their efforts culminated in a significant vote to make Argentina the largest Latin American country to legalize abortion, it became clear that the loss was an important step in further changing feminist talks in their country.
“We managed to break down prejudices and the discussion became much less dramatic,” said Lucila Crexell, who was among the senators who voted Wednesday to legalize abortion. She was one of the two MPs who abstained from voting in 2018. “Society as a whole has begun to understand the debate more moderately, less fanatically.”
The shift was visible on the street: What began with a series of marches by young women, in recent years has begun to look like a true national movement. Older women joined the demonstrations, as did men. Blue-collar workers joined the professionals in the march, and village activists connected with the urban base of the movement.
They came to support the movement that formally began in 2015 in a rage over the killing of women – its name is Ni Una Menos,, or not one woman less – and he began to focus his message on the tribute taken by underground abortions.
But the seeds of his success were planted more than a generation ago, in the campaigns of missing mothers and grandmothers, which helped introduce a year of military junta in Argentina in the 1980s. When abortion activists waved green handkerchiefs for the past few years, they followed in the footsteps of those Argentine women, who protested against the abuse of the general by wearing white handkerchiefs.
“Argentina has a well-established tradition when it comes to popular organization and mobilization,” said Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Argentina’s Minister for Women, Gender and Diversity. “The street, as we call it, has a strong effect in winning rights.”
Women also acquired critical mass in Congress, able to shape the debate on abortion rights, as the quota law first reserved a third of their legislative seats during the 1990s and was later expanded to require parity.
In this latest vote and victory, lawmakers have set abortion rights as a matter of social justice and public health – dozens of women die each year seeking abortions, according to Argentina’s network for access to safe abortion.
Lawmakers who changed their votes this time to support legalization acknowledged that such framing had had a big effect.
“We are going through a paradigm shift, and this change is being led by feminist struggles and environmental struggles,” said Silvina García Larraburu, a senator from the southern province of Rio Negro who voted against legalization in 2018, but this time for her. “Above my personal attitude, my beliefs, we are facing a problem that requires access to public health.”
This framing also made the effort politically acceptable for President Albert Fernández, a left-wing law professor elected in 2019, to make abortion legalization a campaign promise and an early legislative priority.
“In Argentina, there is a safe abortion for those who can pay for it,” said Vilma Ibarra, the president’s legal and technical secretary, who drafted the law. “Those who can’t have to go through very difficult conditions.”
Argentine feminists advocated abortion as early as the 1980s, but the issue met with little political appeal at a time when democracy itself seemed fragile after a military dictatorship and when religious conservatism had difficulty holding public debate. .
The official campaign began in 2005, with the establishment National campaign for the right to legal, safe and free abortion,, an umbrella organization without a leader whose only goal was legalization.
They introduced the first law in 2008 – only to avoid it by a large majority of MPs, who feared that their connection to the topic could harm them politically without achieving results, because it was considered that there was no chance to pass against Catholics.
“Many said they agreed, but refused to put their signature on the bill,” said Julia Martino, an activist who helped lead the effort.
Feminist groups have continued to present abortion bills every two years, hoping to keep the problem alive. But a series of concrete brutal murders of women, including the murder of a 14-year-old pregnant teenager in 2015, spurred their long-running search and spurred the creation of Ni Una Menos.
Their effort has spurred many women in Argentina, launching mass street demonstrations and leading to a broad reckoning about sexism, gender parity, and women’s rights that has begun to reach other Latin American nations as well.
When abortion fighters in Buenos Aires held demonstrations in support of legalization in late 2017, they were stunned by the turnout.
“What happened to the movement is that it started to increase and get different votes,” said Claudia Piñeiro, a writer and activist for abortion rights.
Dora Barrancos, 80, a government sociologist who was among the women who advocated the problem during the 1980s, said this new generation had built a “rebellion that is contagious”.
Shouts of gatherings during mass street demonstrations were often insolent and defiant. “Down with the patriarchy, which will fall! It will fall! “A popular chant started. “Long live feminism, which will triumph! He will triumph! “
The timing also worked in favor of efforts to legalize abortion.
The Ni Una Menos movement has already pushed women’s rights into the national political conversation in 2017, when Argentina passed a law expanding the quota system in Congress, making women achieve full parity in national politics.
That milestone was the work of a coalition of women MPs that found that while acting strategically on WhatsApp groups and other environments, they collaborated well even across political differences.
The kinship they built by fighting for a greater presence of women in the legislature allowed women to break ranks with male political elders and create a new form of politics that was cooperative, pragmatic, and largely devoid of reputation.
“We realized how strong we are as women when we act in a coordinated way,” said Silvia Lospennato, a member of Congress in alliance with former President Mauricio Macri, a center-right leader who opposed abortion.
“We have all contributed in a way that is very anomalous and completely different from the way men run politics,” Ms Lospennato said.
Overcoming parity, many legislators saw a path to legalizing abortion in 2018. The effort swelled into a national movement but failed in the Senate after a tough campaign by the Catholic Church – and especially Pope Francis, the Argentine himself.
The following year, Mr. Fernández, who has long supported the right to legal abortion, campaigned for president as a feminist. His pre-election poster contained a gender-neutral version of the word “todos”, meaning everyone, in which the letter “o” was replaced by the symbol of the sun.
Once in office, Mr. Fernández established a ministry dedicated to advancing women’s rights. And he promised to put the weight of the executive behind the effort to legalize abortion.
“He saw that there was a movement he wanted to take advantage of,” he said Maria Victoria Murillo, a professor of political science at Columbia University, who is from Argentina. “Argentine politicians are very adapted to street movements.”
Mr Fernández celebrated his victory in the Senate, where the measure went beyond what many, in the council and beyond, expected.
“Safe, legal and free abortion is the law,” he said on Twitter. “We’re better company today.”
Daniel Politi reported from Argentina and Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro.