Argentina's leftist president-elect reignites abortion debate

Maria Lorente
Argentina's president-elect Alberto Fernandez (center) poses for a selfie with women bearing green scarves -- the symbol of activists demanding the right to abortion -- in Buenos Aires on November 14, 2019 in a handout photo

The inauguration of Argentina's president-elect Alberto Fernandez next month has reignited a debate over the legalization of abortion, a year after conservatives narrowly blocked its decriminalization, leaving the country bitterly divided over the issue.

Fernandez, a leftist Peronist, pledged last week he would move to legalize abortion as soon as the new government takes over on December 10.

"I am an activist for an end to the criminalization of abortion," Fernandez, 60, said in an interview, adding that he would send a bill to Congress.

However, he did not say whether he would seek to decriminalize abortion or legalize it as demanded by feminist movements.

Fernandez already appears to have nailed his colors firmly to the mast on the issue. He recently attended the launch of "We are Belen" a book telling the story of a young woman who ran afoul of Argentina's strict anti-abortion laws.

After suffering a miscarriage, Belen was jailed for 29 months for an abortion, before eventually being acquitted by a court.

In a foreword for the book, Canadian author Margaret Atwood said Argentina "provided some of the real-life practices that I included in The Handmaid's Tale, especially the theft of babies perpetrated during the military dictatorship."

"How many other Belens are there in the world? How many women have died because they were afraid of going to a hospital because of an abortion, spontaneous or provoked, terrified of the possibility of being accused of murder?"

- Clear support -

At the book launch in Buenos Aires, Fernandez posed for pictures with pro-abortion activists and their emblematic green scarves, a clear gesture of support.

Last year, a bill to decriminalize abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy was narrowly adopted by the Chamber of Deputies but defeated in the Senate, under strong pressure from the still-powerful Catholic Church.

Argentina novelist and activist Claudia Pineiro, said "abortion is back at the center of debate because Alberto Fernandez is disposed to legalizing it."

"I think he has to decriminalize it and legalize it, but to do that he has to proceed in stages: maybe he should first consider decriminalization and then legalization."

"You can't go fight with all your guns blazing at once, because there are very powerful forces lined up on the other side."

In Pope Francis's homeland, abortion is punishable by up to four years in prison, and allowable only in cases of rape or if there is a risk to the life of the mother.

Fernandez taking a position has irked conservatives, like the Archbishop of La Plata, Victor Manuel Fernandez.

"If I could talk to Alberto, I would ask him if it's worth starting his mandate off with an issue that has been so divisive for Argentinians," the archbishop wrote in an open letter.

-Ready for protests-

Fernandez's abortion plan is "unfortunate," said Ruben Proietti, head of the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches in Argentina, ACIERA.

Proietti last year helped mobilize half a million people onto the streets to counter the feminist pro-abortion lobby as both sides held rival mass protests. The pro-abortion activists wore green scarves to symbolize their cause, and the anti-abortion groups wore baby blue.

Proietti promised to bring "even more than before" onto the streets if Fernandez follows through on his plan.

Feminist groups, which have grown in power in Argentina over the past year, say they will not give up the fight.

"The strategy is to continue to put pressure, to continue the campaign," said Martha Rosenberg, a leader of the pro-abortion movement in Argentina.

"We have work to do," she said.

According to NGOs, between 370,000 and 520,000 clandestine abortions are performed every year, more than 1,200 a day.

Kena is one of the many women who were left "on the verge of death" after having a clandestine abortion.

"I am poor and I have six children. I couldn't have a seventh," she told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"My partner told me feeding seven is the same as feeding six, and I told him, no, there won't be a seventh eating."

Although she had the abortion more than 20 years ago, it left her "suffering a lot".

"I want abortion to be legal. I saved myself, but there are thousands of women who don't save themselves."

According to the latest survey on beliefs and attitudes in Argentina, the number of people who believe abortion is a woman's right has doubled from 14.1 percent in 2008 to 27.3 percent in 2019.