This year’s gathering of the International Political Science Association in Buenos Aires from 15-19 July 2023, had a particular feminist flavour, despite being a mainstream political science conference; with vibrant panels assessing the successes and aftermath of the massive feminist mobilisations in the region. The Ni Una Menos protest that started in Argentina in 2015 had a huge impact across Latin America, but also became an inspiring example for feminists in Europe to denounce femicide and gender violence. It eventually also served as a platform for mobilisation around abortion rights. The marea verde protest that coloured the streets of Buenos Aires green in 2018 helped to legalise abortion after decades of struggle. Yet, legal changes have not ended the strong opposition to abortion and the 2020 law remains challenging to implement.
As Alba Ruibal claims in her contribution to the conference, the abortion question reveals the tension between the aspirations of liberal democratic regimes and the still-powerful influence of religious institutions on Latin American states. The Roman Catholic Church, increasingly along with evangelical and (neo)Pentecostal churches use their traditional networks and often informal access to influence state institutions and policy making. The Argentinian pope and clergy actively sought to oppose the bill by mobilising their networks in politics and society, revealing how Argentina is far from a secular state. Employees of Catholic institutions, which abound in the educational and health care sector, faced charges when supporting the pro-abortion campaign.
After the adoption of the law, conservative and religious actors intensified their efforts to oppose abortion. In particularly, they turned their attention to the sub-national level, attempting to stop the local implementation of regulations on lawful abortions, using strategic litigation. Across the country, conservative groups have filed lawsuits in most of the provinces to challenge the constitutionality of the law. So far, their claim to represent unborn children has been denied and most of the claims have been rejected. However, two of the claims may eventually reach the Supreme Court. Also, they have been active reaching out to doctors in more rural and conservative areas to let them know they can refuse to terminate pregnancies, using the conscientious objection clause in the law. As a result of this campaign, it is hard to find a gynecologist willing to perform a lawful abortion in some remote areas of the country, particularly in the northern provinces where Catholic and evangelical churches have a strong presence.
Yet, feminist responses to defend the law and fight for its full implementation are impressive. Community-based networks that were established before liberalisation, play a vital role post-legalisation.
Next, feminists legal collectives trained a new generation of lawyers specialised in sexual and reproductive rights to assist women seeking lawful abortion and to do “microlitigation” cases, for example when health institutions refuse access.
One of these is the Socorristas en Red (feministas que abortamos)[Network of Feminist Providers of Aid and Abortion Support], a feminist initiative created in 2010 that provides information and support for self-managed abortions (with misoprostol). Since then, the Socorristas network has grown quickly and spread across Argentina. The Socorristas train women with no formal medical training to help other women, and also work with help professional to destigmatize abortion and reinstate non-discriminatory abortion treatment in health services.
To monitor compliance gaps Proyecto Mirar (the “Watching Project”), a feminist watchdog, reveals continued challenges in implementation. In Argentina’s fragmented and decentralized health care system, many providers and local health systems operate independently, creating large inequalities in access to abortion. Whereas the capital offers 5.6 public health centers per 10,000 women of reproductive age, this rate drops to 0,2 per 10,000 women in the province of Chaco, which has the highest rate of poverty and unemployment in the country.
Since the passage of the law, Proyecto Mirar has gathered both quantitative and qualitative data from a wide array of sources, both governmental and non-governmental. These show that while the law mandates free services, many health care institutions charge women for additional, often ancillary services, like ultrasounds. Abortion is particularly difficult to access for adolescents and stakeholders report challenges in guaranteeing confidentiality in cases of minors where abuse is required to be reported.
The Argentinean case not only provides an inspiring example of how decades of sustained feminist activism can eventually lead to progressive change, but also how to resist to the efforts of conservative and religious groups blocking access to these democratically gained rights. The pro-abortion mobilization produced an insurgent, intersectional movement that effectively combines grassroots, legal and community-based action to defend and extend reproductive rights to all sectors of society. The current movement has built connections to many sectors in society, built coalitions with a broad range of other social collectives and managed to make reproductive rights central to the continued struggle for a more a more inclusive and equal democracy.
By Conny Roggeband