BUENOS AIRES – It was only two years ago that the organizers of a rousing women’s movement in Argentina received a bitter loss. 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 landmark vote to make Argentina the largest Latin American country to legalize abortion, it became clear that the loss was a crucial step in further transforming the conversation about feminism in their country.
“We managed to break down prejudice and the discussion became much less dramatic,” said Lucila Crexell, one of the senators who voted to legalize abortion on Wednesday. She was one of two lawmakers to abstain from the 2018 vote. “Society in general began to understand the debate more moderately and less fanatically.”
The shift was visible in the street: what began as a series of marches by young women has looked like a truly national movement in recent years. Older women took part in the demonstrations, including men. Workers teamed up with professional marching professionals, and rural activists joined hands with the movement’s urban base.
They came to support a movement that officially began in outrage in 2015 over the murder of women – their name is Ni Una Menos or not one woman less – and began to focus their message on the toll that underground abortions were taking.
But the seeds of its success were planted more than a generation ago in the campaigns of the mothers and grandmothers of the Disappeared, which helped spark year-long military juntas in Argentina in the 1980s. When abortion lawyers waved their typical green handkerchiefs in recent years, they followed in the footsteps of those Argentine women who protested against the abuses of the generals with white handkerchiefs.
“Argentina has an established tradition of organizing and mobilizing people,” said Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Argentina’s Minister for Women, Gender and Diversity. “The street, as we call it, has a strong influence on the conquest of rights.”
Women have also reached a critical mass in Congress that can help shape the debate on abortion rights, as a quota law first reserved a third of the legislative seats for them in the 1990s and was later expanded to demand parity.
In that last vote and victory, lawmakers made the right to abortion a matter of social justice and public health. Dozens of women die trying to get abortions every year, according to the Argentine Network for Access to Safe Abortion.
Legislators, who this time changed their voices to support legalization, have recognized that such wording has a big impact.
“We are experiencing a paradigm shift, and that shift is being led by the feminist and ecological struggles,” said Silvina García Larraburu, a senator from the southern province of Rio Negro who voted against legalization in 2018, but this time in favor. “Beyond my personal position, I believe we are facing an issue that requires a public health approach.”
This wording also made politically palatable efforts by President Alberto Fernández, a left-wing law professor elected in 2019, to make abortion legalization an election promise and an early legislative priority.
“There is safe abortion in Argentina for those who can pay for it,” said Vilma Ibarra, the president’s legal and technical secretary who drafted the bill. “If you can’t, you have to face very difficult conditions.”
Argentine feminists began to grapple with abortion rights as early as the 1980s, but the issue found little political appeal at a time when post-military dictatorship democracy itself seemed fragile and religious conservatism severely tainted public debate.
The formal campaign began in 2005 with the establishment of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, a leaderless umbrella organization whose unique goal was legalization.
They tabled an initial bill in 2008 – only to be shunned by the vast majority of lawmakers, who feared any association with the issue could hurt them politically without yielding any results, as it had no chance of going through against Catholics had lobbying the church.
“Many said they agreed but refused to put their signature on the bill,” said Julia Martino, an activist who led the effort.
Feminist groups continued to propose abortion laws every two years in hopes of keeping the issue alive. But it was a series of particularly brutal murders of women, including that of a 14-year-old pregnant teenager in 2015, that fueled her long quest and spurred the creation of Ni Una Menos.
Their efforts have put many women in Argentina on their toes, sparked massive street demonstrations, and resulted in a comprehensive reckoning of sexism, gender equality, and women’s rights that other Latin American nations began to reach.
When abortion rights activists held a demonstration in support of legalization in Buenos Aires in late 2017, they were stunned by the turnout.
“What happened to the movement is that it became more numerous and received different votes,” said Claudia Piñeiro, writer and activist for abortion rights.
Dora Barrancos, 80, a government sociologist who was among the women advocating the issue in the 1980s, said this new generation had built “an infectious insurrection”.
The cries of the gatherings during massive street demonstrations were often brazen and defiant. “Down with the patriarchy that will fall! It will fall! “A popular chant went.” Long live feminism that will triumph! It will triumph! “
The timing also had a positive effect on the legalization of abortion.
The Ni Una Menos movement had already included women’s rights in the national political talk in 2017 when Argentina passed a law that expanded the quota system in Congress and allowed women to achieve full equality in national politics.
This milestone was the work of a coalition of women lawmakers who, when planning strategic plans for WhatsApp groups and other frameworks, found that they worked well together even across political differences.
The kinship they had built to fight for a stronger presence of women in the legislature enabled women to separate from male political elders and forge a new form of politics that was cooperative, pragmatic, and largely devoid of excellence was.
“We have seen how powerful we are as women when we act in a coordinated manner,” said Silvia Lospennato, a member of Congress allied with former President Mauricio Macri, a center-right leader who spoke out against abortion.
“We have all helped make politics in a way that is very anomalous and completely different from the way men do politics,” said Ms. Lospennato.
Many legislators who had prevailed on parity saw a way to legalize abortion in 2018. The effort developed into a national movement, but lagged behind in the Senate after fierce campaigns by the Catholic Church – and particularly by Pope Francis, himself Argentinians.
The following year, Mr Fernández, a long-standing advocate for the right to legal abortion, campaigned for the presidency as a feminist. His campaign poster featured a gender-neutral version of the word “todos”, which means “everyone,” with the letter “o” replaced with the symbol of the sun.
After his tenure, Mr. Fernández created a ministry dedicated to promoting women’s rights. And he promised to put the weight of the executive behind efforts to legalize abortion.
“He saw that there was a grassroots movement that he wanted to grab,” said Maria Victoria Murillo, a political science professor at Columbia University, who is from Argentina. “Argentine politicians are very keen on street movements.”
Mr Fernández celebrated the victory in the Senate, where the measure was passed with a greater margin than many in the Chamber and beyond had expected.
“Safe, legal and free abortion is the law,” he said on Twitter. “Today we are a better society.”
Daniel Politi reported from Argentina and Ernesto Londoño from Rio de Janeiro.