Argentina’s historic vote on legalising abortion laws

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“Legal abortion in a hospital” sang hundreds of people outside Congress. It was a long and tense debate that lasted for 23 hours.

At times rumours took over the crowds who feared the vote would maintain the status quo.

But when the vote came, there was pure joy among those who have been fighting for months to shed light on one of the most covered-up issues in Argentina.

“This struggle is historical and it represents so many things. It’s a change in society, to be able to decide over our bodies, to win a collective battle, and that we have to continue fighting to change and transform this country.”

The law had to be modified several times before it was debated in Congress. It now says that women can have an abortion up to 14 weeks into a pregnancy through their health insurance or at a public hospital.

It also accelerates the process in cases where a woman has been raped.

For months, women wearing green bandanas have been taking to the streets calling for change to a law that affects this country’s most vulnerable.

It is estimated that around half a million clandestine abortions are carried out every year in Argentina, with thousands of women hospitalised because of complications. These women could also have been sentenced to up to 4 years in prison if found guilty of interrupting a pregnancy. 

Over the past decade, Argentina has passed a series of progressive laws on issues such as gay marriage, but abortion was off the table until now, when society – especially women and the young -started to demand change.

Green revolution 

Prior to the vote, students took over public schools in Buenos Aires to increase pressure on the politicians. For two months prior to the debate, 700 people gave evidence in Congress on abortion in Argentina.

Women who almost died, priests who work in slums, mothers who lost their daughters and doctors who say they are tired of attending women in public hospitals with complications from abortions and the problems and contradictions they have to face when that happens.

“The law says you should call the police but none of us wants to. We have the duty to save that life but everything gets very complicated,” one doctor told Al Jazeera a few months ago.

On the other side is traditional Argentina, resisting change, and the Catholic Church with Pope Frances at its head. Many politicians in Argentina also say they oppose legalising abortion.

On Thursday the Catholic Church issued a statement saying the results were upsetting and did not solve the real problems poor women face today.

“There are a lot of steps that should be taken prior to passing this law. A lot of education needs to happen. People have to know that if you do something there are consequences…, and one of those is getting pregnant”, said anti-abortion rights protester Cynthia Dosio.

Many are hoping that a change in the law will come with better sex education in schools, more contraceptives and making it easier for families in Argentina to adopt.

The opposition, as well as allies of President Mauricio Macri, were divided on the issue. Macri has encouraged his party members to vote as they see fit even though he is personally opposed to the proposal.

Some of his followers say he is also trying to ease the tense relations that exist between his Government and the Vatican.

Mariela Belski has been campaigning to change the law for years. She managed to change Amnesty’s traditional yellow colour to green during the debate.

She says that the most difficult part is yet to come. “In the Senate is quite difficult, is different. Is more easy in Congress… The numbers are really bad at the moment but we are doing this step by step.

“A green revolution has taken over large sectors of Argentina’s society …and many are convinced the Senate won’t be an exception. Activists have managed to convince many lawmakers that legalising abortion is a matter of public health that urgently needs to be addressed.”

The big question is how former President Cristina Kirchner, now a senator, will vote. During her eight-year presidency, she never allowed the debate to happen because she opposed abortion.

But times have changed and many of those who would have voted against are saying they have changed too.

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