Argentina embarked on a dramatic process of redemption this week. It drops all criminal charges and quashes all convictions against women who have terminated or lost their pregnancies. The move follows the passage last month of a landmark bill legalizing abortion. It is expected to become law within days, making Argentina the third Latin American country to give women full control over their reproductive decisions.
The new law reflects changing priorities and attitudes across Latin America, which coincides with the growing role of women in government and civic affairs. When he proposed the abortion bill, President Alberto Fernández recognized “a dilemma”: “Criminalizing abortion is useless. It only allowed clandestine abortions in alarming numbers. But his motives were more than pragmatic. The government, he argued, had an obligation to take care of all of its citizens, regardless of their personal decisions.
The new law catches up with an often overlooked reality: women have been at the forefront of social movements in Latin America for decades. During the last military regime in Argentina, from 1976 to 1983, women whose husbands and children went missing in state hands formed a protest movement that radically transformed traditional attitudes towards women and motherhood. “Being a mother has become more than caring for and educating children,” noted Cecília Sardenberg from the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil. “It also meant standing up for their rights.”
This ideal continues in the social movements led by women in Latin America today. In 2012, for example, Camila Vallejo led university students in Chile to demonstrate against government funding for education. She is now a member of Congress. In Argentina, 42% of senators and 39% of deputies (sitting in the lower legislative chamber) are women. In Bolivia, women represent 52% of the parliament. Last year, Mexico made gender parity a requirement in all three branches of government.
It is not known how many women in Argentina will benefit from the decision to drop criminal penalties for terminated pregnancies. But even partial numbers indicate the extent of the harm done. Since 2012, when the latest reforms were passed, allowing abortion only in cases of rape or when a woman’s life was in danger, around 38,000 illegal abortions have been performed each year. According to a study by the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) in Buenos Aires published last month, more than 1,500 women in 12 of the 23 provinces face criminal liability in one form or another for losing a pregnancy through abortion or by miscarriage.
The cost of strict abortion bans in Latin America is high. In Argentina alone, around 3,000 people have died as a result of unsafe procedures since 1983. Poor women have been disproportionately affected. As the CELS study notes, women suffering from the effects of poor procedures have often been turned down by medical professionals. Even women who suffered miscarriages were subject to prison, abuse and stigma.
Explaining her vote in favor of the bill, Senator Nora del Valle Giménez said: “I choose to see the thousands of young people who call on us to pass this law and join in the consolidation of democracy – who demand .. . to participate in the construction of a country with less exclusion, more equality and more rights. “
In societies where women have long been considered more as symbols of “the stability and continuity of the race”, as the Mexican writer Octavio Paz put it, than as individuals in their own right, Argentina has marked a profound change. Thanks to the recognition of the dignity and worth of women, democracy is renewed.