The Abortion Debate in Argentina
Or how men, priests, and the ignorant subjugate women
In the very early hours of August 9, the Argentinean Senate missed a historic opportunity to become the first Catholic-majoritarian country in the global south to legalize voluntary abortion. Instead, the upper chamber’s total rejection of abortion revealed three dynamics that prevent women from acquiring full citizenship rights, and which still preclude Argentina from becoming a truly secular and pluralistic society: a toxic and oppressive patriarcalism; an authoritarian Catholic Church; and ignorance coupled with chauvinism.
There are few countries in the global south that have legalized voluntary abortion, and there are even fewer in Latin America. Those that have share certain similar historical and social traits. They have either embraced strict secularism, like Uruguay; are governed or have been governed by Communist regimes, such as Vietnam; or have viewed abortion as part of their health policy or through the lens of women’s rights, such as in South Africa.
If abortion had been legalized, Argentina would have been the first country to do it that also constitutionally recognizes preferential status to the Catholic Church. Such a breakthrough could have been the springboard for other Latin American countries such as when Argentina sanctioned same-sex marriage in 2010, a step which was followed by Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, and Costa Rica.
The adoption of marriage equality, while continuing to criminalize abortion in Argentina, leads us to the first factor that contributed to the law’s downfall. In countries like Argentina, where special status is given to the Catholic Church, the legalization of same-sex marriage has tended to take place either in parliament or a constitutional court. In the case of Argentina, it is cisgender men who were either white or of European descent, high-skilled professionals, artists, or renowned figures, who had a degree of socioeconomic and political power, who pushed for same-sex marriage.
Legal recognition of same-sex marriage was framed within a democratic conception of sexual citizenship, legitimating non-heterosexuality through liberal individual rights like privacy and intimacy, and within a conservative and bourgeois notion of marriage that reaffirmed its main objective: to reproduce and create families. Abortion could not be framed the same way. It’s not about sexual diversity nor does it reinforce the traditional view of marriage as a vessel for generating families. Voluntary abortion is about women’s rights. It empowers women by giving them greater control over their own bodies.
It therefore revolutionizes how women are framed under patriarchy. Women are no longer just daughters, wives, mothers, or grandmothers. Their identities are no longer exclusively tied to their blood or contractual relationship to men. And this is where Argentine men drew the line. Since 2015, Ni Una Menos (“Not one [woman] less”), arguably the most important social movement in Argentina in the last ten years, has been battling a counter-hegemonic war against domestic violence, femicide, sexual harassment, rape, unequal pay, and the criminalization of abortion. Every time issues such as these are discussed in the public they are deemed too controversial or as of interest only to left-wing lesbians or mal cogidas (literally “poorly fucked” because naturally if women complain about men it is either because they are not sexually attracted to them or because they have not had fulfilling sexual experiences with them).
Despite this, the movement succeeded in bringing about many legal and social changes regarding domestic and sexual violence. Many Argentinean men woke up — I was one of them — and others reluctantly accepted them. For the latter camp, however, the right to abortion is a step too far. For many men a woman’s right to abort deprives them from their own manhood because what better indication of virility and manliness than your own progeny?
But Argentinean men could not just rely on their own patriarchal power; they had to carefully rebut legalizing abortion as a woman’s right and as a health policy to save women’s lives. They required metaphysical and moral refutations. They needed divine intervention. Argentinean patriarchy, then, looked for assistance from one of the leading patriarchal institutions worldwide: the Catholic Church.
Of course it did not hurt that the current pope is an Argentinean man who as archbishop of Buenos Aires had fought against sexual education in public schools and the morning-after pill, and had described gay marriage as the devil’s making. And so, the Argentinean Catholic Church, in alliance with Evangelical communities, decided to go to war with Argentinean women seeking to legalize abortion. If Ni Una Menos framed the debate as saving a woman’s life, the Church doubled down by claiming that legalizing abortion would kill two lives: the unborn child and potentially the mother’s because the procedure is never completely safe. With the help of its dependent Catholic NGOs and universities, the Church spread lies about the dangers of voluntary abortion, claiming, for example, that: women who have had abortions are rendered practically infertile; that most abortions happen after week twelve; that physicians and health care providers that refuse to carry out abortions because of their own beliefs would be prosecuted and sent to jail.
Their targets were Christian women who might personally disagree with abortion but would agree with its legalization for women who would choose that route. Regrettably, the misinformation campaign did not stop there. The Pope compared abortion to Nazi crimes, and Catholic schools distributed brochures stating that Hitler was pro-choice, and that voluntary interruption of pregnancy was equivalent to a new Holocaust.
In addition to its use of misinformation, the intervention of the Catholic Church in this debate was also extremely problematic in two other ways. First is its role in Argentina’s history. The Church opposed civil marriage in 1888, women’s suffrage in 1947, shared custody in 1985, divorce in 1987, sexual education in 2006, same-sex marriage in 2010, gender identity in 2012, and assisted fertilization in 2013. Not to mention its active support of the Argentinean military junta and its involvement in hundreds of cases of child molestation.
From a historical point of view, its constant repudiation of women’s empowerment makes the Catholic Church a principal oppressor of women’s rights. The fact that women are considered second-class members of the Church, and are not permitted to become clerics but instead are only allowed to consecrate their pious lives in servitude or confinement reveals the alternative for women who choose not to pursue motherhood.
Secondly, the public debate on abortion uncovered an old controversy in Argentina regarding how secular the country really is. It was not coincidental that the social movement against legalizing abortion chose sky-blue — the color of the flag and the nation — as its identifying color. Their message was clear: the legalization of voluntary abortion was not just a crime against mothers and the unborn but also against the nation and its future children.
Additionally, la marea celeste (“the sky-blue tide”) had another message: abortion goes against the country’s Christian identity. Anti-abortion legislators made this their battle cry. As a country founded on Christian roots, Argentina belongs to the Judeo-Christian civilization, which abortion is simply not a part of. Article two of the national constitution recognizes this by bequeathing preferential status to the Catholic Church. Both Congress and the sections of the public argued that while Argentina recognizes freedom of religion, it remains a Catholic country.
In this sense, the Catholic Church and certain Evangelical congregations are clearly fighting against any conception that frames Argentina as a pluralistic society where non-Christian denominations and atheists can enjoy rights that contradict certain Christian dogmas. Secular society is accepted as long as it does not diverge too much from Christian morality. Many legislators even tied Catholic family conceptions to the progress and stability of the country, claiming that abortion was a secular, and therefore foreign, imposition that threatened the future of Argentina.
It is here that the saddest and most pathetic anti-abortion factor revealed itself. The sheer ignorance, and even chauvinism, that steered the anti-abortion campaign — from both the Catholic Church and members of Congress — was mind-blowing. Representatives and senators claimed that: legalizing abortion would lead to depopulation; abortion was an instrument created by the developed world to subjugate Argentineans; North American and European companies supported legalization in order to harvest organs from aborted fetuses and sell them on the black market; that intra-familial rape was not really that violent and therefore did not justify intervention by the state; and that legalization would create an arbitrary distinction between permissible and non-permissible abortion in week fourteen.
Moreover, legislators were talking about souls being created at the moment of conception as a proven scientific fact, rather than a religious or philosophical belief. Instead, lawmakers should have been researching when an autonomous human consciousness arises — even week 14 is earlier than the development of a fully-grown central nervous system. Even more striking was how ignorant lawmakers were of Argentinian civil law and the contradiction in their argument. If they actually believed that the moment of conception produced a full rights-bearing human being, then they should have pushed to change the civil code which stipulates that if an unborn person dies during gestation, or is born dead, that person has never existed and no rights were ever bestowed on them.
Following the rejection by the Senate, the legalization of abortion will have to wait until next year to be debated again in Congress. Perhaps, certain federal countries need constitutional courts to intervene and declare the prohibition of voluntary abortion unconstitutional, such as the U.S. Supreme Court did in Roe v. Wade. In 2012, the Argentinean Supreme Court ruled that rape constituted an exception and that women could be granted an abortion following an affidavit. Regrettably, not all judicial authorities are willing to sign off on the affidavits and not all physicians are keen to practice abortions even following a judge’s order. The Catholic Church opposed the ruling, claiming that not even rape justified the termination of a pregnancy.
Finally, the Argentinean Senate missed a deeply historic opportunity. It is shameful that the debate was won by ceding to conspiratorial, ignorant, superstitious, misogynist, excommunicatory, and medieval arguments. If many Argentineans believe that their country’s identity is exclusively embedded within Catholicism then they should replace civil law with ecclesiastical law, and ban same-sex marriage, divorce, pre-marital and any type of non-reproductive sex, and relegate women solely to domestic work and motherhood. Additionally, if they actually believe that legalization of abortion equals genocide then they should refrain from traveling to any country in the world that allows voluntary abortion. Though I wonder if they are willing to sacrifice trips to New York, Paris, or Barcelona.
Ni Una Menos and their allies will keep fighting for women’s rights. Some people I know have decided to stop going to mass following the Catholic Church’s despicable actions during the debate. Many will vote against the legislators that opposed abortion and the ruling party will probably be negatively affected in certain districts for not supporting legalization. The former President Cristiana Fernandez de Kirchner’s inspiring speech in favor of abortion brought her into a very positive spotlight (a much-needed one considering the recent corruption cases against her).
Most importantly, the debate exposed the many faces of Argentina; its most ugly and violent one won the battle, but the most beautiful one — full of young, inspiring and diverse people (mostly women) — was able to leave a powerful and everlasting footprint on society. It’s the generation that will be able to change the country and steer it towards a truly secular and open-minded horizon. Abortion will become legal and women will be able to decide when to become mothers and how to deal with their own bodies. No judge, no priest, no physician, no father, no husband, no man will dictate their own future. Sera ley.
Emmanuel Guerisoli is a PhD candidate in sociology and history at the New School for Social Research.