Since the passage of same-sex marriage legislation this summer, the political and social climate in Argentina has led women’s groups to increase pressure on lawmakers to decriminalise abortion.
On Tuesday September 28, the Day for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1,000 members of the Juana Azuduy Women’s Collective (“Las Juanas”), filed a “collective and preventive” writ of habeas corpus at courtrooms across the country, demanding the criminalisation of abortion be declared unconstitutional.
Gabriela Sosa, head of the Santa Fe Las Juanas, told IPS, “We chose the habeas corpus route because it protects people’s freedom, and we are thus asking the courts, in a preventive manner, to protect us if we become pregnant and want to interrupt the pregnancy.”
They also asked the courts to press the legislature to bring the law that penalises abortion into line with international norms that recognise a woman’s right to make decisions about her body.
Recent progressive legal victories, such as the legalisation of gay marriage in July, have made the political climate amenable to discussions regarding reproductive rights after years of fierce resistance from the powerful Catholic Church and other conservative sections of society.
Groups that had been reluctant to formally declare a stance on abortion, like public universities, are now speaking out. For instance, in August, the deans of the University of Buenos Aires backed the decriminalisation of abortion by 23 votes against one.
In addition, there have been statements in favour by members of the Supreme Court, like magistrate Carmen Argibay, who said this month that the time to debate changes in the country’s abortion law “is now.”
Though there is currently more social interest in debating abortion, Sosa admitted that the 2011 elections will pose a challenge, because “no candidate is going to want to pick up the hot potato of abortion” in an campaign year.
In Argentina, abortion is a crime punishable by prison, except in extreme cases. According to a report prepared by the University of Buenos Aires and the Centre for Population Studies, 460,000 to 600,000 Argentine women seek unsafe abortions each year. Las Juanas reports that unsafe abortions are the main cause of maternal mortality in the country.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International also joined its voice to the Las Juanas campaign, with the deputy director of Americas Programme, Guadalupe Marengo, calling for the repeal of all laws that penalise or provide for the imprisonment of women or girls who undergo an abortion under any circumstances.
Amnesty says the restrictions on safe, legal abortion put the human rights of women in the region in “grave danger.”
It is encouraging to know that a bill, which has the support of about 50 members of the lower house of Congress, to decriminalise abortion may be debated in October. Introduced by legislator Cecilia Merchán of the left-wing movement Libres del Sur, the draft law would legalise first trimester abortion on demand, and has already made it through several committees.
Merchán said, “For us, this is not a new issue, but we see that society’s demands are now forcing legislators to discuss it,” she added.
Another bill has been presented in the Senate, which would simply expand the circumstances under which therapeutic abortion is legal, making it available to women facing risks to their health, either physical or mental.
Las Juanas and other pro-choice activists and legislators do not have the support of Argentine President Cristina Fernández, who has spoken out against the legalisation of abortion. But Merchán is confident that the president’s position will not impose itself in the legislative debate.