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Argentina counts down the hours to the vote on legalizing abortion

Green handkerchief mob at the Congress. Image from the Facebook page of the National Campaign for the Right to “Safe, Legal and Free Abortion”, widely shared online.

On June 13, the members of Argentina's lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, will decide if they will give preliminary approval to a bill that would legalize abortion. The debate started officially in March this year, a historic milestone in the long struggle for reproductive rights in the country.

For two months, the Chamber of Deputies listened to the different arguments for and against. The debate period gave way to certain modifications to the bill to gain votes from undecided deputies. The most significant ones are the possibility for doctors to invoke conscientious objection, although hospitals are obliged to have professionals on staff who would accept to go forward with the procedure. Also, consent from parents or legal guardians will be required for women under 16.

Meanwhile, another debate has taken place on and offline: every Tuesday since April, several human rights organizations and civil society groups, convened by the National Campaign for the Right to Safe, Legal and Free Abortion, have met in front of Congress with a green handkerchief as a symbol of the struggle. Their slogan reads: “Sexual education to have a choice, contraception to avoid abortions, legal abortion to avoid death”. There have also been demonstrations against the bill lead by different religious organizations and anti-abortion groups with the motto “Let's save both lives”.

On June 13, a vigil is scheduled to take place in front of Congress as the Chamber of Deputies deliberates. Several polls have pointed to general support for the bill among the population. Even renowned journalist Eduardo Feinmann, a passionate anti-abortion advocate, made a quick poll on Twitter and wasn't too happy with the results:

“Poll. Are you for or against legal, safe and free abortions?” [78% are for, 16% are against, 6% did not know].

However, so far an analysis of deputies’ voting intention shows a small inclination against legalization. There are still a lot of undefined votes, though, either because deputies are undecided or are keeping their position private to avoid pressure or threats.

The last day of formal debate featured a strong presentation by Minister of Health Adolfo Rubinstein in support of decriminalization:

Llevamos 35 años de democracia. El aborto es un tema que ha estado escondido bajo la alfombra. […] La evidencia es muy sólida respecto a que la despenalización reduce la mortalidad materna y el número de abortos totales. De alguna manera tenemos que actuar.

We've had 35 years of democracy. Abortion is a issue that has been swept under the rug. […] The evidence is solid: decriminalization reduces maternal deaths and the number of abortions. One way or another, we need to act.

If preliminary approval is granted, the bill will move to the Senate, where for the moment there are many more votes against legalization–for the moment, quite bigger. This tendency could change, however, according to the result of the debate taking place in the Chamber of Deputies, where those who are undecided play a crucial role.

“I'm just another green handkerchief looking at Congress”

It's impossible to ignore the influence of public opinion, not only in the polls, but also through different personal stories that are being shared online.

In one such testimony, a women talks in detail about the legal and bureaucratic obstacles she had to face when she needed a therapeutic abortion. Without making the names of the doctors public, she describes how some of them refused to help her, and how one of them asked for an unconscionable amount of money in exchange:

Mi cabeza y mi cuerpo no habían logrado resetearse y seguían aún con la angustia grabada de aquél momento en el que en vez de recibir la ayuda y contención médica e institucional que necesitaba, me encontré saltando al vacío sin red. Cuando dormía tenía pesadillas con el Dr. N y el Dr. B. […] No puedo dejar de pensar en el médico B. Sobre todo después de verlo en el Congreso argumentando a favor de la vida.

My head and my body had not been yet able to restart. I still had the anxiety of that moment in which, instead of getting the help and the unbiased position I needed from the medical institution and the doctor, I found myself jumping into a void without a net. Whenever I slept, I had nightmares with Dr. N and Dr. B […] I can't stop thinking about Dr. B. Especially after seeing him in Congress, arguing in favor of life.

And she concludes:

Siento que nos estamos jugando mucho en estos días. Algunas amigas me dan valor, como si me dieran la mano, como aquélla vez […] Soy sólo un pañuelo verde más mirando al Congreso y pidiéndole que vote la legalización del aborto.

I feel we've been risking a lot these last days. Some girlfriends give me strength. [It feels as if] they were holding my hand, like [they did] on that day […] I'm just another green handkerchief looking at Congress and asking it to vote in favor of legalizing abortions.

On Twitter, others have also expressed strong opinions and different views in favor of the bill:

The UN defined the criminalization of abortion as a method of torture. If the law is not approved, those responsable for that torture and the eventual deaths will be the deputies who voted against it. They will have to carry each and every woman who bleeds to death in their conscience. Abortion exists, legal or illegal.

[If you say] “I only support legal abortion in case of rape, if not, let them be screwed for opening their legs”, then you don't really care about [saving] “both lives” [as anti-abortion campaigners say]; what you want is to punish women, don't you think? Legal or illegal abortion, that is the question.

If the law is passed, Argentina would be the second country in Latin America to follow the global trend towards either legalizing or decriminalizing abortion. The first country in the region to do it was Uruguay in 2012. As a result, the maternal death rate dropped and has become the second lowest in Latin America.

Let's be like the countries we want to be like. Without corruption, integrated in the world, with a responsable macro-economy, social protection, political dialogue… and legal abortion.

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