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A victory for the movement in the streets: inside Argentina’s abortion win

A victory for the movement in the streets: inside Argentina’s abortion win

Originally published: Red Flag by Jordan Humphreys (January 7, 2021)   | 

On 30 December, Argentina’s Senate voted to legalise abortion after many years of mass protests around the issue. In the wake of this important victory, Red Flag  spoke to Cele Fierro, an activist with the anti-capitalist feminist group Juntas a la Izquierda and a member of the national leadership of the Movimiento de los Trabajadores (MST) in Argentina.

The struggle for abortion rights has won an important victory. What was the feeling on the streets of Argentina when the bill was approved?

It was a historic day. In front of Congress and throughout the country we felt and lived the joy of victory, of having won this right after many years of struggle. It was a clear political victory against the most reactionary forces: against the Pope, the Catholic Church, its evangelical partners and anti-choice politicians. It has been a victory of the popular mobilisation, of our green tide [movement for abortion rights uses the colour green to identify itself], the same process that won the fight to put the issue of abortion on the political agenda in 2018 and that now finally turned it into law in our country.

Many activists in Argentina argue that abortion isn’t just a question of women’s rights but is also a class question. Can you explain?

In our country, as in the entire world, abortions exist. In Argentina, it is estimated that between 1,000 and 1,200 abortions are performed per day. Before this law, one could only gain access to a legal abortion for three reasons: in case of rape or risk to the life or integral health of the woman or pregnant person. But the person that decided to terminate a pregnancy would go through with it all the same, clandestinely. This put the question of class at the centre of the debate, because those who could pay for an abortion in sanitary conditions were the middle and upper classes. On the other side, there were about a hundred deaths a year of young and poor women due to infected abortions. Those who could not afford it resorted to dangerous methods: hangers, parsley, knitting needles etc. In addition to deaths, there were some 40,000 hospitalisations each year as a result of complications, haemorrhages and infections. We all have abortions, but the poor die from them.

Much of the mainstream media across the world see the abortion bill as a victory for President Alberto Fernández and the Justicialist Party government. But the passing of the bill came after many years of protests on the streets. How did the movement in Argentina get to the point of scoring this important achievement?

It was our green tide that put the issue on the political agenda and got the bill through the lower house of Congress in 2018. This mobilisation first made Alberto Fernández include the slogan of legal abortion in his electoral campaign and then made him present his project to Congress. That green tide ended up winning the fight, beyond all the manoeuvres and pressures against it. Outside of Congress, the massive “green” presence for legal abortion contrasted with the small numbers of “celestes” [celeste, light blue, is the colour used by the anti-choice movement], demonstrating that abortion rights have gained much more popularity.

Of course, the national government is trying to capitalise politically on this great achievement. But it is not easy. First, because a large portion of the feminist vanguard knows that, during its twelve years in power, the governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner always kept the bill off the floor. Second, because it is known that the government and the Church have a good political relationship. Third, because it is also a known fact that Alberto Fernández’s project contained several limitations and that in its passage through both chambers of Congress further limitations were added.

It is also important to know that the Justicialist Party, which governs at the national level and in several provinces of the country, does not have a pro-choice position. On the two occasions that the issue was discussed in Congress (2018 and 2020), the members of Congress and senators of this party were divided, with many of them voting against the bill. The reality is that the votes in favour were obtained across the different political forces. In 2018, the rejection of the bill in the Senate was possible because of the votes against it provided by the Justicialist Party. Or, for example, in the provinces that it governs, legal abortions on the reasons established since 1921 are not practiced, forcing raped girls to become mothers. To be clear, the only force that has abortion rights in our program is the left, and we were the ones who gave this fight consistently for years.

And it is important to point out that the government used this very just cause, both its debate and approval, to, on the one hand, hide a new adjustment to pensions: while the abortion law was being voted in the Senate, the lower chamber approved a change in the calculation of retirement pensions that means a new theft from those who have worked all their lives. And on the other hand, it is a policy to recover ground with a sector of society that had voted for the government but had become increasingly discontent due to the policies that it has carried out such as austerity, service rate hikes and repression.

There has been some debate about the nature of the bill that was finally approved, and some concessions were given to religious opponents of the bill. What are some of the concessions and why do you think they were made?

It is a historic victory in terms of expanding rights. Along with recognising that, we cannot remain silent on its limitations. The bill that the president put forward was more limited than the one that had been passed by the lower house of Congress in 2018. It included individual conscientious objection for healthcare professionals and criminal punishment for those who have an abortion and for those who perform the abortion after the fourteenth week (with some exceptions). When it came to the Chamber of Deputies, using the excuse of winning votes when it went to the Senate (every law must be passed by both houses), they added a third limitation: elevating the individual objection to de facto institutional objection for private clinics and healthcare providers, which now only have to “redirect” the practice to an establishment that guarantees it.

In the Senate, a fourth obstacle in the law appeared: the president’s commitment to remove the concept of comprehensive health from the bill in the moment of signing it into law. For the World Health Organization, health is correctly considered as comprehensive: including physical, mental and social aspects. By taking this concept out of the new law another limitation is imposed on the right to access an abortion, even falling behind previous judicial rulings and national protocols that regulated decriminalised abortions. These setbacks of the abortion law confirm that the government of Fernández and the Frente de Todos was conceding to pressure from the Church and reactionary political sectors.

What were some of the debates and different political tendencies within the movement?

Throughout the fifteen-year history of the campaign, various debates have taken place. For example, in the beginning, abortion was only discussed as a woman’s right, but with the advance of the LGBTI+ movement, the concept of “gestating person” was adopted, to include trans men, non-binary people, etc. In recent years, the need to address abortion rights in the mandatory curricular contents of the Comprehensive Sex Education Law was also incorporated into the bill drafted by the campaign, as well as the criteria of secularism and science in pre-abortion counselling in health centres.

An important aspect to highlight is the debates related to the strategy and the internal functioning of the campaign. Fifteen years ago, the National Campaign for the Right to Abortion had a more plural and democratic character, integrating the diversity of the hundreds of social and political groups that make it up. But in recent years its leadership has taken on a more opportunistic character, positioning itself in an uncritical and functional way with regards to the government and prioritising institutional negotiation instead of mobilisation in the streets. This political strategy of the campaign leadership meant that, in 2018, when the bill was being debated in the Senate, it focused on lobbying and not on mobilisation and pressure on the street. This year, they accepted the project put forward by the government instead of defending the one we collectively built. Almost alone, we fought against these opportunistic concessions, arguing that accepting the official project would open the door to the anti-choice sectors, and that the force of the green tide in the street could go for more. Unfortunately, and in parallel with the political and strategic debates, the internal methodology of the campaign was less and less democratic in an attempt to silence the revolutionary left, especially the MST.

Trying to summarise, we can say that two opposing political strategies exist and generated debates on several occasions. These two strategies are also based on the different political sectors that make up the campaign. On the one hand, a strategy of institutional lobbying and confidence in the possibility of influencing the deputies and senators of the bourgeois parties. This position was upheld by sectors linked to these parties, that is, the Justicialist Party, the UCR, the Socialist Party. It was also the focus of the “Catholics for the Right to Decide”, an NGO focused on institutional pressure. On the other side are those who defend a strategy focused on mobilisation, breaking with the institutional framework, based on the understanding that legal abortion was going to be conquered through independent action and organisation from below. This is the position defended by the MST and Juntas y a la Izquierda, our feminist group. And it has gained ground in the struggles of recent years, with the mobilisations of Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) against sexist violence, with a process of massive radicalisation, which was also part of a worldwide wave of feminist struggle.

What role did the socialist left, and in particular the MST, play within the movement for abortion rights?

We can proudly say that we are among the currents that were more involved in this fight. In 1973, our predecessor party, the PST, was the first in the country to nominate a woman as vice-presidential candidate and to propose legal abortion. Since then, this claim has always been part of the political-electoral platforms of the left, in open contrast with the capitalist parties.

As we said, the MST is part of the National Campaign for the Right to Abortion, a space for coordination and struggle that has been around for more than fifteen years and that presented the abortion bill eight times in Congress. This distinguishes us from other left-wing currents such as the PTS and the PO, which are neither part of the campaign nor argue against said leadership.

“Juntas y a la Izquierda” and the MST has stood out for its important role in all actions for legal abortion from 2018 to now. We have promoted mobilisations throughout the country, and we will continue so that the law is effectively applied. Also, as I said in the previous question, we have argued within the movement for an orientation based on independence from the government, mobilisation and organisation as the way forward in the struggle for our rights. We were also at the vanguard of arguing within the unions and the organisations of the working class that they had to take up this fight, for example promoting and demanding a call for a strike on the day of the vote. This has made us a reference for the feminist and dissident vanguard. And if the official television station of the Senate and the other television stations, during the long hours of the session, showed our flags outside the Congress, it was because we were the most numerous and combative column not only on the left but in the entire mobilisation.

What connection do you see between the struggle for abortion rights and the struggle for socialism?

Every important struggle that takes place, each social and political process that opens, signifies an advance in the consciousness of mass sectors and even more so at the level of the vanguard that participates in them. In our country, the fourth international feminist wave expressed itself in a new layer of young comrades who quickly made the political experience with the institutions of the regime and with the bourgeois and reformist leaderships. In this way, they advanced towards anti-system positions that brought them closer to the ideas of the revolutionary left.

In other words, it is not only a confirmation that mobilisation is the way to win our rights, but also that the pro-capitalist organisations are useless for this. In this determined political intervention without capitulations, in the heat of the struggles against sexist violence, for the right to abortion, for the secularism of the state and other gender demands, we have won hundreds and hundreds of young people for the militancy in revolutionary socialism, strengthening our party. It is also a battle that will continue, because in its crisis this system will try to cut down all our rights.

What impact do you think this victory will have for women’s rights across Latin America?

I think it will have a very positive impact, without a doubt. These struggles are contagious, and in the framework of a situation in which the peoples take to the streets and confront governments and regimes, the conquest of legal abortion in Argentina is a new impulse to the other popular demands in general and gender demands in particular.

When in our books and articles we have marked the characteristics of the new feminist wave, in addition to its combativeness, massiveness and anti-capitalist dynamics, we also said that it was international and internationalist. This victory confirms it: the struggles for Ni Una Menos and for legal abortion—or to defend it in those countries where it already exists—have a continental and global extension that feeds each other, strengthening us to advance here and everywhere.

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