Legal Abortion in Argentina? A Long Shot Is Suddenly Within Reach

A demonstration in favor of abortion rights in front of the congressional palace in Buenos Aires on Tuesday.

BUENOS AIRES — Lucía Bulat, a 19-year-old medical student, was dancing on the steps of the congressional palace in Buenos Aires as she looked out on a crowd of abortion rights demonstrators who had gathered in Argentina’s capital.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Ms. Bulat said on Tuesday. “We’re empowering ourselves and demanding our rights. We can’t let people keep telling us what we can and cannot do with our own bodies.”

Not long ago, abortion rights activists in Argentina had little reason to believe they could make the polarizing issue a legislative priority.

But lawmakers in Pope Francis’ homeland began considering legislation this past week that would allow women to have an abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

If backers of the measure succeed, Argentina would become the most populous country in Latin America to allow women to terminate pregnancies — a milestone in a region where strict abortion laws are the norm.

The arrival of an abortion bill in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Argentina’s Congress, is widely seen as a direct outgrowth of a broader women’s rights movement in the country that started in 2015 with a campaign against femicides called “Ni Una Menos,” “Not One Less.”

Hundreds of thousands of women have taken to the streets in recent years to raise awareness about domestic violence and press for stronger laws to protect women.

“The Ni Una Menos movement led to a surge of adherence to the feminist movement and a generalized demand for more equal rights,” said Dora Barrancos, 77, a sociologist at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council, a government agency. “This change is very overwhelming.”

For Andrea Schenk, 28, who joined the abortion rights demonstrators outside Congress, the link between Ni Una Menos and the abortion debate unfolding among lawmakers is undeniable.

“Fighting against femicides led us to fight against all forms of violence against women — and not letting us decide over our bodies is a form of violence,” she said.

The prospect of legalization became more politically plausible earlier this year, when President Mauricio Macri, who opposes legalizing abortion, freed allied lawmakers to “vote their conscience” on the issue.

If the bill does pass — by no means certain — it would be, in part, because of a coalition of unlikely allies in Argentina’s notoriously divided Congress.

The rise in activism among the country’s women encouraged a few female lawmakers who support legalizing abortion to join forces. They include Victoria Donda, a leftist; Brenda Austin, from Mr. Macri’s center-right Cambiemos coalition; Romina del Plá, from the Workers’ Party; and Mónica Macha, an ally of the center-left former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

“Although we have lots of political differences, we also have a profound agreement on this issue,” Ms. Macha said.

Hundreds of experts and witnesses are scheduled to appear before a special commission that will meet twice a week over the next two months to consider the bill.

Several countries in Latin America allow abortions under limited circumstances, like pregnancy that results from rape or when the mother’s life is threatened. Argentina would become the fourth nation in the region to allow abortion without such restrictions, if the procedure were to be legalized, joining Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and some parts of Mexico.

Proponents of legalization in Argentina say their main motivation is to save lives. Complications from clandestine abortions account for 18 percent of maternal deaths in the country, making it the leading cause, said Mariana Romero, a researcher at the Center for the Study of the State and Society, a nonprofit organization. In 2016 and 2015, at least 98 women died as a result of botched abortions.

“There are between 45,000 to 60,000 hospitalizations derived from clandestine abortions every year,” said Ms. Austin, the lawmaker from the president’s coalition. “Those who are against legal abortion are in favor of clandestine abortions.”

Although women who have been raped or have potentially lethal pregnancy complications are allowed to have abortions in Argentina, few doctors perform the procedure because they are afraid of running afoul of the law.

“In practice those exceptions are not actually honored, and what we see is a near total ban on abortions,” said Salil Shetty, the secretary general of Amnesty International, who visited the country this past week.

Support for legalizing abortion appears to have grown in Argentina in recent years as the Roman Catholic Church has lost clout.

A 2006 survey by the Center for the Study of the State and Society showed 37 percent of Argentines said women should be allowed to have an abortion regardless of the cause, a number that increased to 49 percent in a poll the nonprofit carried out in March.

Another nationwide survey this year by the National University of General San Martín found that about 55 percent of Argentines favor legalizing abortion, although attitudes vary widely by geography.

In the more rural northern provinces, 40 percent are in favor, a sharp contrast with the 67 percent in Buenos Aires.

“There is a very clear correlation: More modern, urban areas are more likely to approve of legalization,” said Lucas Romero, who leads Synopsis, a consultancy.

The high level of support to legalize abortion caught some experts on the issue off-guard.

“The number really surprised me,” said Vanesa Vázquez Laba, head of the gender and sexual diversity department at the National University of General San Martín, referring to the university’s poll. “Evidently, the increased attention to gender violence led the abortion issue to suddenly take a more prominent role in society as a whole.”

Such polling numbers, and the increase in the influence of the abortion rights movement, likely prompted Mr. Macri to assume what amounts to a neutral position as Congress takes up the debate.

“As I’ve said more than once, I’m pro-life,” Mr. Macri said in his annual speech before Congress on March 1. “But I’m also in favor of the mature and responsible debates that we owe ourselves as Argentines.”

Church leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the bill, and they have recently argued that improving sex education in schools is a better strategy for addressing unwanted pregnancies.

The first legislative hearing on the issue this month was unusually calm by the standards of Argentina’s rancorous Congress. Hoping to keep acrimony to a minimum, Daniel Lipovetzky, the government-allied congressman who will lead the debate in committee and is in favor of abortion rights, insisted that all questions to experts be submitted in writing.

Outside Congress, a smaller group of protesters urged lawmakers to listen to the “voice that is never heard,” as they clapped to the sound of a heartbeat and danced to songs celebrating life.

“No one has a right to kill a life,” said Sabrina Soulier, 28. “Murder also exists, but that doesn’t mean we have to legalize it.”

Some 36 lawmakers out of 256 eligible to vote have yet to say where they stand, according to a count by Mr. Lipovetzky, who is optimistic that most of the undecideds will wind up in the yes column.

“Anything could happen,” Mr. Lipovetzky said. “The result will depend on how those undecideds end up voting.”

Many foresee the real battle playing out in the Senate, where rural provinces have more sway. A count by Economía Feminista, which advocates for gender equality, shows only 16 senators have spoken up in favor of legalization, while 27 have expressly said they are against the measure, and 29 have yet to say how they would vote.

But activists are convinced it will be difficult for senators to vote against the bill if it gathers a large margin of support in the lower house.

“No senator is suicidal,” Ms. Donda said. “We’re going to win because we have the most solid arguments in our favor.”

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