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Decriminalization of Abortion in Argentina: The Debate No One Expected

This article aims to frame the discussion on the decriminalization of abortion in the context of the government initiative that surprisingly propelled the issue on to the political agenda of Argentina; to give an account of the actors involved and the main arguments for and against, and finally to show the plurality of voices that have manifested against decriminalization.

President Macri’s decision to allow parliamentary debate on the decriminalization of abortion[1] – also referred to as decriminalization of “VIP” – has formalized in Argentina the debate on this issue.

It has been formalized because it has opened public discussion on a topic that is not new, neither in Argentina nor in the world. In our country the project of “Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy” (VIP) was presented in six previous occasions, most recently in 2016[2], but always lost its parliamentary status and did not have legislative treatment in Congress[3].

It has been formalized because the seventh presentation this year coincided with the decision of Macri´s to enable the discussion in parliament, and has also included the presentation of other projects, including the official bloc itself.

The Argentine President has shown himself “in favor of Life”[4], and suggested that the debate should happen within a framework of freedom of conscience. Speculation abounds about this apparent contradiction, and about the political opportunity to promote this debate. Some consider that it is a measure of distraction in the face of a complex economic and social situation, in a scenario of rising inflation. Others consider that it is a measure aimed at attracting support from progressive sectors to broaden the base of political support of the government. Others consider that it is a political message addressed to Pope Francis in relation to his supposed intervention in the domestic politics of Argentina.

Beyond the intention of the government, at the same time has begun an intense campaign to influence the debate and congressmen.

The ones who are in favor of decriminalization are running the “National Campaign for the Right to Legal Abortion, Safe and Free”, an alliance that was woven after the national meetings of women in the cities of Rosario (2003), and Mendoza (2004), and has found various supports in civil society, expressed in the “Pañuelazo”[5] of February 19th of 2018.

On the side against decriminalization we can find, among others, Argentina´s Catholic Church through its Episcopal Conference, bishops of various dioceses, the Head of the Catholic University, the Department of Laity, pro-life organizations, representatives of other churches and confessions, some functionaries and non-religious sectors[6], among them the National Academy of Medicine[7].

The latter group also decided to “take the street” and express themselves, calling for a march under the slogan “Every life counts”[8] on Sunday March 25th, the day of the “Unborn Child” – established by Saint John Paul II – and legal in Argentina by Decree No. 1406 of 1998.

This action reached almost 200 cities in Argentina and did not have any media coverage. The Medias realizing the magnitude of the mobilizations were forced to set them in agenda a few hours later. This apparent neutrality and indifference of the media, is not consistent with the broad coverage of the Medias and the dissemination of sectors opinions given in favor of decriminalization.

From the plurality of voices that have spoken out against decriminalization we can mention the document issued by the Episcopal Conference of Argentina in agreement with the latest public statements on the issue made by the Pope Francis – “I know it’s an existential and moral drama,” said the pontiff, who in 2015 gave the priests of the world the power to absolve the sin of abortion.

The text entitled “Respectful of life,” also does not refuse the issue being discussed in Congress – “that this debate find us ready for a sincere and profound dialogue” – and makes a reference to a law passed by the previous government: “a few years ago with the enactment of ‘Universal child Allowance’, the Honorable National Congress demonstrated once again in its republican history a high degree of human sensitivity in favor of the family and the lives of children and poorest youth. Shouldn’t we continue on this legislative way?”[9]

Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches of Argentina (ACIERA), which brings together more than 80% of evangelical communities of the country, urged lawmakers to vote against the decriminalization of abortion because “life is the first of the Human rights that the State must protect from the moment of conception”, adding that “the practice of clandestine abortions is in itself a humanitarian problem of society. The emotional aftermath of abortion, illegal or legal, are deep and difficult to bear. But we understand that Argentina’s public health needs to find proposals that ensure and protect the mother and her child, and defend life, both women and the unborn child “[10].

A statement signed by more than thirty priests of settlements in the Capital and Greater Buenos Aires in addition to the two priests newly appointed as bishops to the slums[11], refuted the appeal to the precarious situation of low-income pregnant, “we believe that some social sectors take the poor as justification for their arguments, talking about the abortion death rate of women in the poorest neighborhoods to promote decriminalization”, adding that “the first thing to do in our neighborhoods is to fight poverty with determination where the state has the best tools. With almost 30% of poor other social problems should be prioritized in the design of social policies”[12].

In a national newspaper the Sephardic Rabbi Isaac Sacca of Argentina denounced that “life is the supreme value for sacred texts and emphasized that abortion is against human life” that threatens “unnecessarily women’s health”. The great rabbi who visited Pope Francisco in December 2016, stated that we must realize that people are weak and we must shudder at the discomfort. We must remember that abortion is murder, and promotes a life of debauchery without responsibility… is a fundamentalist ideology that turn us into murderers… we could be signing our moral condemnation as society”[13].

The arguments in the debate shaping up – both for and against the decriminalization – seem to combine great storylines that I’ll try to summarize very briefly: those related to public health issues and those related to matters of law.

Among those in favor, some highlight that abortion would be a responsive policy to a public health issue not addressed by the State, claiming that abortion is a fact that, given its illegality, is practiced clandestinely and burdensome and without following protocols and safety for the mother who decides to terminate the pregnancy. Secondly, the need to legislate the right of women to decide on their body, especially in cases of unwanted pregnancies resulting from abuse, threatening the life of the mother, or in situations that put at risk the future survival of the child.

The arguments against decriminalization, addressing the public health arguments claim that the State has a duty of life care, and mention ethics and professional responsibility of doctors emanating from the Hippocratic Oath, according to which every medical act is aimed at preserving life, not to eliminate it. Figures and actual impact of clandestine abortion are also very difficult to set out, being an illegal practice, and are not registered by official statistics. Against those who claim that legalization would come to fill a gap in health coverage for women, especially the poor ones, the answer is that women are re-victimized, not only suffering from an unwanted pregnancy, but must also go through the trauma of abortion and post abortion. With regard to questions of rights, there are at least two issues at stake. The first is that the woman would not be exercising a right to decide over her own body, but over the right to life of another being who she carries in her womb. From this perspective there are two lives at stake. The second is that the decriminalization of abortion would be an unconstitutional law, since Argentina joined the American Convention on Human Rights (also called Pact of San José de Costa Rica) which states that everyone has the right to their life being respected from the moment of conception.

This is another discussion comes into play: the scientific and moral. To what point is there no longer an embryo and somebody becomes a person?

Those in favor claim to establish that difference in terms of a number of weeks of gestation. Those who are against consider that there is a person from the moment of conception, what has been verified by genetics. On this point there seems to be no possible agreement.

Within hours of the beginning of the debate in Argentina, in his last apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate” dedicated to “holiness in the world today,” the Pope stated that helping the poor should be as important as fighting against abortion. The document advocates a strong social commitment and has a progressive orientation, in addition to indirectly criticizing the more conservative groups within the Church who face Francis and conspire against him.

“Our defence of the innocent unborn, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred”[14]. The Pope added that “equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection”[15].

The debate has begun and promises to be passionate, as the Pope predicted.


[2]Docket No. 4161-D-2016. Posted by Parliamentary Procedure No. 84.

[3] Every project submitted that does get its approval in one of the chambers during the parliamentary year in which it had being presented expires that year.

[4] ditto 1

[6] For example, the National Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, the Medical College of Salta, the Medical College of Tucumán, the Tucumán Lawyers Association, the Plata Academy, the Medical College of the city of La Plata, the National Academy of Law and Social Sciences of Buenos Aires, the Lawyers Association of the City of Buenos Aires, the Argentine Society of Medical and Biological Ethics and the Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics of San Juan.

[15] Idem 11