Undaunted by Senate Loss, Argentine Abortion Advocates Forge New Tactics, Coalitions

Activists who want church-state separation are staging public withdrawals from the Catholic Church, a new web tool uses emojis to pinpoint legislators' abortion stance, and the fight to change the law may advance the case for sex education.

[Photo: Three young woman pro-choice activists hear green and orange headbands that show their support for reform of Argentina's restrictive abortion law.]
Hours after the Argentine Senate rejected a bill that would have legalized abortion up to 14 weeks in early August, young activists attend a Bueno Aires rally. Their green and orange accessories are visual evidence of the growing coalition between pro-choice advocates who sport emerald handkerchiefs and orange-wearing activists who want less church influence over politics in the South American country.

On August 9, Argentina’s Senate rejected a bill that would have legalized abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Instead of feeling downtrodden, pro-choice activists are retooling and finding ingenious ways to keep the abortion issue at the forefront. From staging public renunciations of the Catholic Church, deploying social media to hold anti-abortion legislators accountable, and using the debate to advance comprehensive sexual education, they are making lemonade from the defeat.

Dating from the 1920s and before women had the right to vote, the country’s penal code outlaws abortion except when the woman’s health is jeopardized or if a person with mental or cognitive disabilities was raped. In the staunchly Catholic country, women who seek abortions can be punished with up to four years in jail, though prosecutions seem rare.

“We must campaign for [abortion legalization] and demand it, now more than ever,” María Leticia Cazeneuve, a member of Feminist Translators and Interpreters From Argentina. It’s one of many independent associations forming part of the national campaign for the legalization of abortion in Argentina.

Like many of the thousands of activists who donned green handkerchiefs to show their support for legalizing abortion, Cazeneuve was disappointed by the vote but sees it as a mere bump on the road toward legalization. The bill had already passed the lower house by a narrow margin, exceeding the expectations of local campaigners. Rather than hanging up their green handkerchiefs, pro-choice Argentine women are tying them to their school bags, purses, and getting things done.

Because the Senate vote highlighted how Catholic and evangelical groups influenced lawmakers to vote against abortion access (Argentine-born Pope Francis reportedly weighed in), some Argentines were alarmed at misinformed and religion-based arguments presented before the Senate vote. As a result, pro-choice activists found not-so-unlikely partners in advocates who want greater church-state separation. The latter have donned their orange handkerchiefs and taken to the streets alongside the abortion-rights movement—but have also distinguished themselves with their own rather unorthodox initiatives.

The Argentine Coalition for a Secular State (CAEL, for its Spanish acronym) has stepped in with their increasingly popular and public actions of collective apostasy—helping people publicly defect from the Catholic Church.

Marcela Brusa of CAEL explained that “this pressure [from the church] made it clear for a lot of people that, although the church has every right to not support the bill, they do not have the right to legislate on civil matters.”

CAEL members have set up stands on the streets of cities such as Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata, and Mendoza to inform fellow citizens of their right to renounce the church and why they should do it. Volunteers help willing Argentines walk through the process and submit the official apostasy forms to the diocese in each person’s name. They also educate passersby about how to formally withdraw from the church rolls if they want to do it themselves.

Since the August vote, CAEL says that at least 2,000 Argentines fed up with the church’s grip on the country’s lawmakers have disassociated themselves from the Catholic Church.

Renouncing the church sends a very clear message to religious leaders, but also puts a dent in the coffers of the dioceses, which aren’t taxed by the state and receive benefits and allowances based on the number of faithful they have on their dockets.

This invigorated movement is also bringing tongue-in-cheek ingenuity to online activism, too. One developer has created an extension for web browsers that adds a green heart next to the name of representatives and senators who voted in favor of legalizing abortion whenever they come up on the user’s online searches. Legislators who voted against get a poop emoji.

The goal is to make it easier for users to rapidly recognize allies while reading up on politics and getting ready to vote in the 2019 national elections, ensuring citizens are clear on what their political representatives stand for and to make it easier to vote anti-choice politicians out.

While the anti-choice movement is claiming success in gutting the Senate vote, the ongoing abortion debate has strengthened the case for the national Comprehensive Sexual Education program (ESI). The anti-choice movement has traditionally opposed including sexual education in public school curricula, but it was cornered into a Catch-22 of its own making as the abortion measures moved through the legislature.

The movement had to publicly admit that in order to reduce the occurrence of clandestine abortions and “save lives” as they said they intended to do, children must be taught sex ed early on.

Cazeneuve said,“There is no turning back with the implementation of the ESI. We’ve been long calling for it. [Some] people who wear the blue handkerchief [of the anti-choice movement] seem to have just realized that it needs to be urgently enacted.”

The Senate’s vote against legalizing abortion is rippling through the country—and even the national body that regulates drug use and safety. Argentina’s equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—the National Medicines, Food and Medical Technology Authority (ANMAT)—authorized the consumption and manufacture of misoprostol in the country after the Senate vote, making sure to note that it is intended to be used “for gynecological or obstetric purposes.” Misoprostol is a drug commonly used in obstetric care; it can be used to induce abortions safely, and it’s often combined with the drug mifepristone for a highly effective way to end a pregnancy.

Since the ANMAT announcement, various laboratories have committed to manufacturing it on Argentine soil. One laboratory in Santa Fe province hopes to have its first batch ready by December, with another in Rio Negro province closely following in 2019. This is not by chance. These two provinces have historically been liberal in making abortions available in public hospitals by interpreting health endangerment to include mental health and overall well-being.  The medication will be dispensed to hospitals throughout both provinces and administered by doctors, but not available for sale in pharmacies.

Yet another step in the right direction might be coming. President Mauricio Macri had promised to present a draft reform to decriminalize abortion on August 21. Although merely a short-term solution, this proposal was supposed to guarantee that women found guilty of undergoing abortions would no longer be punished for it—although this would tentatively be at a judge’s discretion. Yet on the given date, nothing was presented, and rumors speculated that the president believed it was too soon to suggest reforms to the penal code.

His action may have been delayed by an August 19 filing by the the most prominent anti-choice group nongovernmental organization in Argentina, Más Vida, which lodged a complaint to stop abortion decriminalization through constitutional reform.

In the meantime, three Argentine women have died of complications from clandestine abortions since August 9. The most publicized case was that of “Elizabeth,” a mother of two who attempted a self-induced abortion using parsley.

Despite the challenges, activists remain confident and celebrate each small step taken toward legalization. “It will be law!” they still chant, with its Spanish hashtag #seraley firing up social media. The struggle is alive and well, with change slowly seeping in.