In the final days of 2020, Argentinian lawmakers resisted pressure by Catholic and evangelical Protestant abortion opponents, ignored a last-minute intervention by Pope Francis, and approved a bill legalizing abortion for any reason up to fourteen weeks of pregnancy. After that time, abortion will be prohibited except in cases of rape or danger to the woman’s health. The abortion bill, versions of which had been rejected by previous legislatures for several years, was, according to The New York Times, passed by a “wider-than-expected” margin of 38 to 29. Some senators attributed their change of heart to the efforts of feminist activists to paint an accurate picture of the experiences of Argentinian women. Reproductive rights organizations stressed that hundreds of thousands of clandestine abortions are performed in the country every year. In 2016, approximately 40,000 women were hospitalized with abortion complications.
Reproductive rights activists have been pushing for abortion legalization for decades, but since 2015 the campaign has been fortified by the feminist organization Ni Una Menos, which has combined campaigns for abortion law reform with increasing protests against rape, domestic violence, and sexual discrimination in all areas of Argentinian life. The green scarves and handkerchiefs favored by Ni Una Menos have been adopted as a symbol by feminists in many countries of Latin America.
Argentina is the largest country in the region to enact an abortion-on-demand policy in the first trimester of pregnancy; Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana are the only other countries with similarly progressive laws. There are, however, other places that in practice afford women reproductive rights even if the law codes do not give the same blanket permissions as Argentina’s or Cuba’s. In Colombia, for example, a measure passed in 2006 was hailed by physicians and reproductive rights organizations as a great victory, because it allows abortion in the first trimester under broadly defined mental and physical indications. It should also be noted that even before the Colombian legislature liberalized abortion restrictions, hundreds of thousands of women received safe abortions administered by qualified personnel. The authorities for the most part looked the other way.
Another example concerns Mexico. Feminist activists are engaged in ongoing struggles to legalize abortion at the national level. But meanwhile Mexico City and the state of Oaxaca have abortion on demand to twelve weeks. Mexico City offers safe and affordable abortion access (covered by state medical insurance) to well over twenty million people.
As I have stressed on numerous occasions, legality of abortion by no means guarantees that the procedure will be readily available, safe, and affordable for the vast majority of women. The depressing situation in most areas of the U.S. certainly bears witness to that fact. Nor does illegality always mean that abortions are necessarily performed under unsafe conditions, as we see from the example of Colombia in the decades before liberalization in 2006. What is abundantly clear is that women of all countries, economic circumstances, races, religions and ethnicities will sometimes find themselves in unfortunate situations and see abortion as their only reasonable alternative.