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(Re)Acting Around Abortion: Comparative Reflections on Argentina's Abortion Law and the reversal of Roe v Wade, one year on

When I originally submitted a pitch for this blog, I was in the midst of an outrage episode for what had transpired in the U.S. Supreme Court of Justice in relation to the reversal of Roe v Wade and what this would mean – immediately, in practice, for thousands if not millions of people with the capacity to get pregnant.

I could not help but liken these feelings of anger and despair to the exhilarating thrill that ran through my body on the early hours of December 30th, 2020, when Argentina’s Senate finally passed the bill that had been approved in the lower chamber of Congress only days before.

Such scenarios have kept me thinking about the dynamics of abortion access (re)actions. Thus, this piece outlines key moments in the Argentinian road towards the legalisation of abortion on demand, against the U.S. scenario a year after Roe v Wade fell. I will do so in the hopes that this exchange of ideas might help us to constructively reflect on the next chapter both for Argentina’s and the U.S. to have a truly comprehensive access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all.

Actions towards legalising abortion in Argentina

Group of women holding green scarves and flags are jumping and singing in front of Congress in Buenos Aires, Source: Facebook, Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito

Caption: A group of women holding green scarves and flags are jumping and singing in front of Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Source: Facebook (Jan. 24, 2021)).

Through the lens of feminist activism, there are a few salient moments in understanding how abortion on demand became legal in Argentina.

Firstly, the power to create common ground between women and diverse identities cannot be understated. Women Meetings, or ‘Encuentros’ have been taking place yearly since 1986. Across the very large, federalised country that Argentina is, the Encuentros allow for collective reflections on social demands both from organised and independent women and people of diverse gender identities. It was during the 2005 Encuentro that the National Campaign for the Legalisation of Abortion was formed as a cross-cutting permanent mobilisation front.

The second issue pertains to the parallel roads taken around abortion access. It took fifteen years since the creation of the Campaign for an abortion bill to pass in Congress. However, a simultaneous process of social decriminalisation of abortion had been taking place. This meant talking openly and publicly about abortion in order to normalise it and fight stigmatisation. As many point out, the persistent combination of both the pursuit of legal change and the social decriminalisation seems to have been fundamental in advancing towards the achievement of both outcomes.

Thirdly, the legalisation of abortion did not happen in a vacuum. Whilst it took eight attempts to even introduce a congressional debate on abortion, Argentina passed legislation on topics such as divorce, sexual and reproductive health, comprehensive sexual education, and gender-based violence. These changes were possible in no small part due to the breadth of feminist organising, which in turn fuelled the strategies implemented by the Campaign in favour of legalising abortion on demand.

Reactions after Roe v Wade in the U.S.

People protesting outside of Congress in Washington, D.C. An orange sign reads

Caption: People protesting outside of Congress in Washington, D.C. An orange sign reads 'No bans on our bodies' (Source: Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash. Oct. 2021)

The overthrowing of Roe v Wade did not happen overnight either. Neither was it an isolated action, but a well-thought backlash strategy by conservative groups in the U.S. to cut back on reproductive freedom.

On the wake of the SCOTUS ruling, statistics showed a bleak outlook: at least 66 clinics across the country stopped providing abortion services; travel times for people looking to get an abortion soared; added associated costs placed an even harder burden on people of colour, working parents, or both. Effects on criminalisation, denial of abortions and late-term abortions are among the main findings on the latest research following the Dobbs decision.

The mid-term congressional elections in 2022 put a spotlight on abortion, having this been a decisive issue for many voters who turned to the polls willing to stop having their rights stripped away from them, particularly voting in state elections to stop further restrictions or tightening abortion access in legislation through direct ballot measures. Still, the national congressional landscape remains uncertain, foreseeing that the battleground for abortion rights in the U.S. will heavily lean towards fighting at state level.

The way forward

In this final part, I would like to advance on an exchange based on the challenges that both countries analysed here face moving forward with abortion access.

The U.S. is an illustrative case of how the amplification of human rights is not a one-way avenue. As mentioned before, Argentina has enshrined into its laws many issues on gender and reproduction. However, time and again opposing forces will call into question acquired rights. Whilst trans and non-binary communities’ demands made it into the abortion law in Argentina, through the use of inclusive language, the subject remains contentious in practice. Mauro Cabral, a trans activist and historian, points out that

To be entitled to abortion rights, trans people had to first be acknowledged as subjects of reproductive rights.– Mauro Cabral, a trans-activist and historian
group of women marching on the street with indigenous flags and holding a sign reading

Caption: A group of women marching on the street with indigenous flags and holding a sign reading 'We want us to be plurinational' (Source: Ni Una Menos Facebook, October 2018).

Perhaps the positionality of indigenous women and their role throughout the Campaign in Argentina can likewise infuse additional layers of dialogue and play into the strategies that U.S. activists will implement in abetting abortion access in an ever-growing restrictive context. Argentina still needs to acknowledge how both racialisation and plurality coexist in the fabric of its society and how these can lift barriers for effective access to abortion on demand, given the obstacles towards implementing comprehensive sexual education and contraception in small indigenous communities, usually influenced by the Catholic Church. The U.S. has an extensive trajectory of grappling with these inequalities, which make it even more fundamental to truly bring reproductive justice frameworks into the mobilisation strategies for stopping further advances on sexual and reproductive rights.

Gaining rights is not enough, because the backlash will often make itself noticed. Abortion campaigners remain in a state of constant alert because people continue to be criminalised for having abortions – a scenario that the UK has unfortunately been reacquainted with quite recently. Meanwhile, the momentum gained from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year has pushed conservatives into amplifying their strategies and going after access to abortion medication and gender-affirming healthcare, among other topics. In both scenarios, mobilisation efforts cannot stop, at risk of giving leeway to further advances on conquered rights.

Despite their respective contexts, the U.S. and Argentina share some common traits in their political system that support the claim for more and better exchanges between activists, academics, and practitioners around these topics and beyond. They are both large, federal countries with contentious cleavages that affect both electoral outcomes and policy implementation at local levels. The scenario already looks promising for these exchanges to grow, in particular through the brokering role intersectional, transnational activist networks play. Argentinian feminist scholar-activists based in the U.S. also provide an array of studies that are interesting not only to grasp the dynamics of Argentina’s abortion politics, but also to have compared perspectives from other countries in the Southern Cone. Facing the constant challenges ahead requires collective and solidary work from all of us who are committed to guaranteeing access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all.

About the author

Melisa is a PhD student in the School of Geography at Queen Mary University of London. She holds a Licenciatura in Political Science from the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina) and a Master of Science in Development Management from The London School of Economics and Political Science.

She has over 10 years of experience consulting for the public sector and NGOs, on topics such as Latin American migration in Europe, local economic development, internationalisation and decentralised cooperation for subnational governments, vulnerable youth, knowledge-based enterprises and gender and public policies.

Her current research merges her interests in sexual and reproductive health and rights, particularly safe abortion access; feminist movements and organisations; Latin America (with a focus on the Southern Cone and Argentina); gender mainstreaming in public policies; subnational studies; and international cooperation.

Twitter: @MelisaSlep

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