Argentine Students Build Momentum in Push for Abortion Rights

Argentine Students Build Momentum in Push for Abortion Rights (Pro-choice activists during a pro-abortion demonstration in front of the National Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo: Gabriel Sotelo/NurPhoto via Getty Images))

Action starts in school 

Students in Latin America have a long-standing reputation for activism and social critique, demonstrated most recently by the high school students challenging fare hikes who sparked massive protests against inequality in Chile. In universities in neighboring Argentina, students are organizing around issues of reproductive rights which are especially controversial in Pope Francis’s homeland. Among the young activists at the National University of Cuyo in Mendoza is 19-year-old Sol Gabiola. She’s a student organizer with the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion.

Political science student and legal abortion activist Sol Gabiola poses with signature green campaign bandana in Mendoza. (Photo: Raquel Victoria Navarro)  

Gabiola is a political science major at UNCuyo and was inspired to join the national campaign to legalize abortion — internationally recognized by their green bandanas — when she heard the lyric of Argentine rock band, Callejeros, “Saying abortion is legal shouldn’t be a mortal sin, and may my people not remain unawakened.” Public accusations that a professor in her department abused students further solidified Gabiola’s organizing both in the legal abortion campaign and across the broader feminist movement. 

The laws in Argentina

Argentina’s current abortion restrictions date back to 1921. The only legal grounds for abortion are in cases of rape or to protect the life or health of the mother. In 2018, a slight majority of Argentine senators struck down a bill aiming to legalize abortion without restriction in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, which was a win for advocacy collective Unity Pro-Life that has demonstrated across the country, famously bearing light blue bandanas. 

Silvia Giacoppo who represents the conservative-leaning northern province of Jujuy and voted against the bill in 2018 considers abortion a violation of rights that should not be justified by “considering the will of a woman supreme” as reported by La Voz.

Cuba and neighboring Uruguay are the only countries in Latin America where abortion is unrestricted in the first trimester and in places like El Salvador and Honduras, interrupting an unwanted pregnancy can be punished under all circumstances, according to the Associated Press. Despite these restrictions, the “green wave” is rushing through Latin America and Argentina is expected to be an example for the movement whose massive bandana protests originated there. 

A new attempt at legalization

Activists with the Argentine campaign for legal abortion cite deaths due to clandestine abortions as their main motivation to get a new legalization bill passed this year. According to the National Ministry of Health, in 2016, 43 women had fatal abortions, accounting for around 17% of maternal deaths. Networks of volunteers across Latin America have since emerged to support individuals safely abort unwanted pregnancies on their own with medications misoprostol and mifepristone, as well as guide those who are eligible through the legal channels. 

“Unfortunately, the public medical professionals who actually guarantee these services are far and few between” said Ana, a student volunteer with the network in Salta. She asked to withhold her last name because the work is illegal. “More commonly we find health professionals who mistreat and exercise punitive actions on the women and adolescents who request to interrupt their pregnancies legally in the hospital,” she said. According to their website, this volunteer network has supported over 19,000 individuals from 2014 to 2018 in Argentina alone.

Provincial power in a federal debate

States continue to influence federal abortion law changes in both the U.S. and Argentina. Oklahoma legislators proposed a state bill in February that would revoke licenses of physicians who perform abortions except to save the mother’s life or to prevent a serious health risk. Effective in July, Florida minors who seek abortions will need written and notarized parental consent (with few exceptions like a “medical emergency”), or doctors could be charged with a third-degree felony. Members of Congress are also urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider precedents for the landmark 1973 abortion rights ruling Roe vs. Wade in a recent brief. And the Senate scheduled votes on two abortion-related bills a few weeks ago.

There are similar trends in Argentina. Argentine provinces like Mendoza and Corrientes decided to opt out of upholding a Legal Interruption of Pregnancy (ILE) medical protocol under ex-president Mauricio Macri, according to human rights organizations. But newly appointed officials under President Alberto Fernández want to make the protocol a federal standard again. The new president also created Argentina’s first Ministry of Women, Gender, and Diversity, whose members appear to support the campaign for legal abortion. The National Legal Abortion Campaign along with the Network of Volunteers or “Soccoristas en Red” celebrated the adoption of the Legal Interruption of Pregnancy (ILE) in Buenos Aires in January, but this does not indicate if senators from northern provinces will change their stance this spring.  

The state of reproductive rights in 2020

The national campaign in favor of legalizing unrestricted abortion in Argentina announced bold expectations for 2020 in a press release on Twitter in which they urge the state to lawfully declare the sentiment that is “already in the streets,” referring to their massive pañuelazos around the country. They also call for national fabrication and distribution of mifepristone and misoprostol. Unity Pro-Life also writes about what comes next for their organization on their blog: “now begins hard, but encouraging work to design public health policy that considers the rights of the two lives.”

“Legal abortion now” is stenciled on the walls of the National University of Cuyo in Mendoza. (Photo: Raquel Victoria Navarro)

Despite the strong opposition to unrestricted abortion in a country intimately influenced by the Catholic church, for young women like Sol Gabiola, the legalize abortion campaign is synonymous with the struggle to end sexual violence against women. She recalls when student survivors and allies were present for protests denouncing assault on their university campus last year: “All our fellow classmates were holding green bandanas in solidarity, and a graduating friend hugged me and said ‘we’re creating a university and social community that is more feminist and more free,’ and that, to me, encompasses everything that we are fighting for.”

The “dissident feminist festival” at the National University of Cuyo closes with a performance by local feminist trio, Las Wachas Negras, with green bandanas in the distance.   (Photo: Raquel Victoria Navarro)
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