In a monumental step forward for human rights, at the end of 2020 Argentina fully legalized abortion care through the 14th week of pregnancy. Previously, Argentina permitted abortion only in cases of incest and rape or to save the life of the pregnant person. This victory was not sudden—it was a product of decades of grassroots organizing. And organizers’ victory provides a model for abortion rights advocates in the United States.
Abortion legalization in the deeply Catholic country reminds us of the transformative power of not just grassroots organizing, but also organizing without compromise—that means without making someone’s bodily autonomy contingent on how a pregnancy was conceived. In the United States, while abortion has been technically legal since 1973, not only is care widely unavailable due to hundreds of state and federal restrictions, but access is often conditional due to abortion restrictions with rape exceptions.
To usher in 2021, several U.S. state legislatures are already introducing and passing new restrictions, like Ohio’s latest law requiring costly burials for aborted fetuses. Argentina has provided a bold model of full legalization, and it’s time to fight for the same in the United States. That means refusing to accept the invasiveness and cruelty of making abortion access dependent on exceptions for rape, and recognizing that the struggles for reproductive justice and survivor justice are inextricably connected.
In recent years, state and federal lawmakers have introduced and passed a wide range of bans and restrictions, including bills to restrict abortion coverage and prohibit care at varying stages of pregnancy. These bills often come with exceptions for incest and rape. Abortion opponents have routinely weaponized the rape exception to make their cruel, extreme legislation seem more humane and compassionate.
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This exception raises critical questions that too often go unasked—like how survivors with unwanted pregnancies are supposed to prove they were raped to law enforcement and doctors; whether they feel comfortable and safe doing so; and whether the rape exception can actually protect them if doctors and law enforcement don’t believe them. Rather than supporting survivors’ ability to get abortion care, the rape exception creates dangerous barriers for survivors, and instead benefits anti-choice politicians by improving the moral optics of violent and inhumane abortion bans and restrictions.
Rape exceptions to abortion restrictions send the false message that coming forward about one’s experience with rape, proving this experience to law enforcement and doctors, and seeking care are easy and simple. On all fronts, we know this isn’t true: One in five women experience rape or attempted rape—with women of color and LGBTQ folks more vulnerable to violence—and an estimated 65 percent to 85 percent of sexual assaults aren’t reported. One key reason survivors cite for not reporting their assaults is fear of being disbelieved and punished. The over-simplicity of the rape exception to abortion bans obscures this truth.
Among anti-choice politicians, there’s little consensus on whether there should ever be exceptions to abortion bans. In 2019, white nationalist and former Iowa Rep. Steve King came under fire from across the political spectrum for arguing against the rape exception. Yet there was something sorely missing from this discourse: that abortion bans are violent and inhumane, with or without an exception that’s far more symbolic than effective in supporting survivors.
Survivor justice and reproductive justice are both rooted in a fundamental demand for autonomy and safety in one’s own body, home, and community. Any and all abortion bans and restrictions that push care out of reach serve to violate women and pregnant-capable people, exceptions or not. Similarly, rhetoric that insists people with unwanted pregnancies “take responsibility” dangerously equates consent to sex with consent to pregnancy, birth, and parenthood.
Abortion legalization in Argentina presents other contrasts with the state of care in the United States. Even though the country is deeply Catholic, abortion in Argentina will be covered by the government free of cost, all while the United States continues to ban federal coverage of abortion care in order to prioritize a narrow minority’s personal and religious views over the health and autonomy of pregnant people.
The myriad restrictions on abortion and the deep stigma in the United States have also increasingly rendered pregnant people vulnerable to criminalization and suspicion for miscarriages, stillbirths, and self-managed abortions, with several women of color investigated, charged and even jailed for pregnancy losses in recent years.
Abortion legalization in Argentina is a reminder that in the United States and everywhere, we don’t have to settle for stigma and barriers that violate and endanger pregnant people and people who have survived sexual violence. And we certainly don’t have to settle for laws that punish survivors by forcing them to come forward about their traumas to get health care.
Want to learn more about the movement in Argentina? Check out the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion.