Macri’s stances on abortion and equal pay look more like opportunistic maneuvering than elements of a genuine agenda to promote women’s rights in Argentina.
On June 13, members of the lower house of Argentina’s Congress held an all-night debate on a decisive bill that would legalize voluntary abortion through the first 14 weeks of a pregnancy. Over 11 hours into the debate, lawmaker Fernando Iglesias held up a world map color-coded with each country’s stance on abortion. It showed the United States, Australia and most of Europe and Asia in green, signifying pro-choice legislation. South America and Africa were mostly in red, or orange, representing a complete ban or tight restrictions on abortion. “Think about just one other country you want Argentina to look like,” Iglesias asked his fellow members of the Chamber of Deputies. “Let’s think about the country, and think about where we want the country, which is watching us, to go.”
Though much of the chamber met Iglesias with jeers, he was correct about one thing: The whole country was watching. Thousands of Argentines had flocked to Congressional Plaza in the center of Buenos Aires that night, where a big-screen projection was showing the debate taking place next door. Media outlets pinned live feeds to the front of their websites. The hashtags #AbortoSeraLey, or “abortion will be law,” and #NoAlAborto, or “no to abortion” were on Argentina’s top trending list on Twitter. The country was collectively grappling with the question Iglesias posed when he held up his map: How should Argentina reconcile its own conservative, religious principles—the same ones shared by many of the nations colored in red—while also addressing women’s rights with the attention of those colored in green?
After more than 22 hours of debate, the Chamber of Deputies sided with the green, 129 in favor and 125 against. Although the bill still needs approval from the Senate and President Mauricio Macri, who says he plans to sign whatever version of abortion legislation manages to reach his desk, its progress up to this point feels historic for opponents and advocates alike.
Catholics in Argentina, who make up more than 60 percent of the total population, view the bill as an omen of changing times, with the country’s conference of bishops saying it “hurts us as Argentines.” But for Argentina’s surging feminist movement, it’s a rare victory. Since 2007, six other abortion bills have fallen short in the Chamber of Deputies. There’s still a chance this bill could fall short in the Senate, as early vote predictions show it split closely down the middle or even leaning toward a “no.” But unlike some previous bills on abortion, this one is riding the momentum of a larger, ongoing discussion in Argentina about women’s rights. In 2015, the movement Ni Una Menos, or “not one less,” began protesting gender-motivated violence. Statistics, though not available for every country in Latin America, place Argentina among the leaders in “femicide,” or the deliberate killing of women because of their gender. Last year, femicide accounted for the death of over 250 Argentine women, according to a report by the country’s Supreme Court.
The talking points of Ni Una Menos have naturally transitioned to questions about abortion, reproductive rights and public health, due in part to a steady stream of scandals in Argentina. In 2014, a 27-year-old woman known only as Belen made international headlines after being sentenced to eight years in prison for performing her own abortion 32 weeks into a pregnancy. This year, a 10-year-old girl in the northern province of Salta visited a hospital with stomach pains, only to discover she was 21-weeks pregnant. The girl said she had been raped by her stepfather.
Though abortions are already permitted in Argentina for extreme cases involving rape and serious health risks to the mother, many hospitals, especially in rural areas, remain unequipped to perform the procedure. Validating claims of rape and legitimate risk can put medical professionals in personal legal jeopardy, forcing women to seek out dangerous, clandestine abortions instead. A 2012 Supreme Court ruling advised health facilities to adhere to national protocols, but only eight of 23 provinces had adequately done so by 2017, according to Amnesty International.
Reluctance to carry out abortions has been fueled by the Catholic Church’s deep influence in Argentina, a country whose constitution, until 1994, required the president to be Catholic. Now, the idea that the current pope’s home country might normalize abortion is looking to some, at least symbolically, like an unacceptable political compromise.
Nevertheless, deputies representing the most conservative provinces of Argentina tended to avoid religious-based arguments during this month’s debate. For one thing, appeals to religion failed to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2010. But also, many deputies preferred to talk through the central concerns of the pro-choice movement. They claimed that abortion would be an ineffective, stopgap solution to the deeper social issues affecting women’s rights, like domestic abuse, as well as poverty and public health.
“The damage will be irreparable,” Deputy Carmen Polledo warned of the bill. “It isn’t the way to prevent deaths of women. Rather, it’s necessary to double down on efforts in sexual education policies.”
Yet Congress has shown little willingness to address the issues that most affect women, and it’s unclear why. In 1991, gender quota legislation required that at least 30 percent of congressional representation be female. Despite reaching and even exceeding that figure—women represent about 38 percent of the Chamber of Deputies and about 42 percent in the Senate—female representation hasn’t translated into tangible, gender-focused legislation.
Of the 2,820 bills introduced between the start of 2016 and end of 2017, only 162 were about gender inequality, according to a March report by the Senate’s Human Rights Observatory. Of those 162 bills, only six managed to pass. Some were more symbolic, such as establishing November as a gender violence awareness month. Others increased penalties for sexually motivated crime. Another bumped the gender quota for lawmakers up from 30 to 50 percent, starting with the 2019 elections. For now, Argentina’s feminist movement will have to work with the cards it’s been dealt, persuading a Congress that is split down the middle on nearly every progressive social issue. While pro-choice advocates anxiously await more concrete signs of how the Senate plans to vote on abortion, a gender wage gap continues to go unaddressed by lawmakers. Currently, Argentina’s pay gap hovers somewhere around 30 percent. Last year, men living in urban areas averaged 16,733 pesos, or $606, per month, according to the country’s National Statistical and Census Institute. Women in comparable conditions only earned 12,366 pesos, or $448. “We can’t allow a woman to earn less than a man,” Macri said in March when he announced he would put forward a bill to promote equal pay. “It doesn’t make sense. It has no explanation for those of us who work with them every day. Equal pay must be a reality throughout the country.” Macri won office in 2015 thanks to his business background and promises to overhaul the stagnant economy, not because of his stance on social justice issues. In fact, his administration has been criticized for cracking down on protests, such as one in Patagonia last year that resulted in the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado, an activist fighting for indigenous land rights. Macri’s promises of introducing a bill to address the gender pay gap, and to sign abortion legislation approved by Congress, look more like opportunistic maneuvering than elements of a genuine agenda to address gender inequality and women’s rights in Argentina. Macri’s critics put him in the hot seat in May amid further spikes in inflation and news that his government was working on a deal to borrow $50 billion from the International Monetary Fund, which is deeply unpopular among Argentines. They still blame the IMF and its program of “structural adjustment,” which sparked violent protests against the ballooning national debt and bank withdrawal freezes, for the country’s 2001 economic collapse.
Abortion and, perhaps, the gender pay gap bill, come as a happy distraction from those economic issues. They allow Macri to avoid criticism should Congress vote both bills down, but also reap the benefits if they make it through.
***Max Radwin is a writer and journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Follow his reporting on Instagram @max.radwin.