Argentina’s Decades-Long Fight to Legalize Abortion Ends in Victory

Argentina’s Decades-Long Fight to Legalize Abortion Ends in Victory

Argentina’s Decades-Long Fight to Legalize Abortion Ends in Victory

The campaign to legalize abortion began sometime in the late 1970s, when the “grandmothers” of the green wave were living in exile across Europe.


On Tuesday evening, Argentina was filled with green: green graffiti proclaiming “Children, Not Mothers,” green banners exclaiming “It Will Be Law,” and green bandanas reading “National Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion.” Teenagers and grown women alike tied the green handkerchiefs of the campaign to legalize abortion around their necks to signal their devotion to the cause as they poured out into the streets of more than 120 cities. Together, they stood vigil for nearly 12 hours as the Argentine Senate debated a bill to legalize abortion.

Just after 4 am on Wednesday, as hundreds of thousands waited on the steps of the Palace of the Argentine National Congress, the news came in: With 38 votes in favor, 29 opposed, and 1 abstention, abortion was legalized. Crowds cheered and sobbed with relief. On social media, the once popular hashtag #SeráLey (#ItWillBeLaw) was replaced with #EsLey (#ItIsLaw). Feminists, in not only Argentina but also other Latin American countries like Ecuador and Mexico, promised each other that “Latin America will be entirely feminist.”

Before this, the only Latin American regions guaranteeing abortion in the first trimester for any reason were Uruguay, Cuba, and two Mexican states. Elsewhere, such as in Chile and Peru, abortion is available in specific circumstances, including rape, incest, fetal deformity, or risk to the mother’s health—or, as in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, completely banned. This is why Argentina’s abortion debate made international headlines in 2018 when millions of feminists waited in the streets for a Senate vote after legislators in the lower house of Congress approved a bill to legalize abortion. Although the bill narrowly failed in the Senate, the campaign brought a once-taboo topic out into the open and sparked a country- and continent-wide movement to legalize abortion nicknamed “the green wave.”

That next year, when Argentina’s presidential elections rolled around, Peronist candidate Alberto Fernández and his running mate, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, knew they would have to embrace the green wave in order to win the youth vote. When Fernández took office in December 2019, he promised to fight for the law.

The green wave, however, did not begin in 2018 with the pibas, or kids, who popularized the pro-choice movement. Or even in 2005, when the feminist National Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion submitted its first bill to legalize abortion to Argentina’s Congress. It began sometime in the late 1970s, when the “grandmothers” of the green wave were living in exile across Europe, waiting out Argentina’s military dictatorship and organizing with French, Italian, US, and other Latin American feminists as part of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement.

One of those grandmothers was Dora Coledesky, a Trotskyist labor organizer and lawyer born in Buenos Aires in 1928, but raised in the conservative northern city of Tucumán. When Argentina’s Dirty War broke out in 1976, Coledesky and her husband, like many leftists, fled the country. Landing in France, which had legalized abortion the year prior, she joined the Feminist Revolutionary League, where she organized with Europeans as well as other exiled Latin Americans from Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil. When Argentina’s military dictatorship ended in 1984, Coledesky and her feminist colleagues started to return—eager to organize for change in their own country. Coledesky herself began by joining the women who had stayed in Argentina through the dictatorship—like Magui Bellotti and Marta Fontela, who had formed a group in 1982 called ATEM 25 de noviembre, or the Association of Women’s Work and Study, which met annually on November 25.

At ATEM’s meeting in 1987, Coledesky was speaking at a roundtable when a member of the audience asked what steps Argentine feminists should take next, and the idea was born to organize a group to fight specifically for abortion rights. A few months later, the Commission for the Right to Abortion officially formed.

During the years that Coledesky had been in exile, the United Nations had begun hosting world conferences on women—in Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, and Nairobi in 1985. Inspired by the first conference, US feminists had organized a National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, attended by the likes of Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Shirley Chisholm (and counterprotested by Phyllis Schlafly’s “pro family rally”). Safely returned home, Argentina’s feminists followed suit and organized their own National Women’s Conference to take place in Buenos Aires in 1986. It became an annual gathering that continues to this day as the Plurinational Conference of Women, Lesbians, Travestis, Trans, and Non-binaries. And in 1988, Coledesky co-led a workshop at the National Women’s Conference in Mendoza, introducing the Commission to the broader feminist community. While there, members of the Commission took the opportunity to distribute a pamphlet about their goals, and one reader recommended that they take the project a step further: They should write a bill and submit it to Congress.

In the years that followed, the Commission published essays and magazines, led workshops on contraception, and cofounded International Safe Abortion Day with a group of Brazilian organizers. Then, in 1992, it presented its first bill to legalize abortion to Congress—on the street outside a candy store called El Molino a block away.

“The legislators Alfredo Bravo, María José Libertino, and the radical legislator Gonzalez Gass came,” Coledesky wrote in a reflection on the early days of the commission. “It was the first time that a Contraception and Abortion bill had been presented. Its dissemination, and making it known that abortion was legal in other countries, was one of the most important successes of that time.”

In 2005, Coledesky and her colleagues renamed the commission the National Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion when they finally formally submitted their bill to legalize abortion. Fifteen years later, the National Campaign had presented abortion bills to Congress seven times: in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2018, 2019, and last May.

In 2007, perhaps sensing that she might not live to see abortion legalized, Coledesky wrote about the impact of her work:

The truth is that almost twenty years have passed since the origins of our group and we have not yet succeeded: we have not obtained the right to abortion.… [But] considering the awareness reached by important sectors of society regarding our right to decide, we can say that we have made progress. We can affirm that, although this is not yet reflected in concrete laws and in the face of very powerful enemies, we are no longer alone, but together with many other women.

In 2009, Coledesky died, at the age of 81, without getting to see the green wave wash over Latin America. With the National Campaign on a hiatus from submitting new bills to Congress, Argentina’s feminist movement seemed to stagnate until October 2016 when Lucía Perez was kidnapped, raped, and killed after leaving school. Feminists were gathered that week at the annual National Women’s Conference and immediately began plans for a national women’s strike to protest a pattern of gender-based violence. A new campaign, a national movement against femicide that would be named “Ni Una Menos,” or Not One Less, emerged.

From the beginning, Ni Una Menos collaborated with the National Campaign, seeing abortion access as key to reducing violence against women. “Deaths due to clandestine and unsafe abortion are state femicides,” said cofounder Cecilia Palmeiro. With abortion legalized, “now we demand freedom for all those imprisoned for aborting.”

Ni Una Menos inspired protests across Latin America, focused on domestic violence and sexual assault, and redirected national attention to the feminist cause. Argentine politicians, like then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, were forced to reckon with the feminist awakening. And in 2018, even with Argentina under the more conservative presidency of Mauricio Macri, millions turned out in support when the reenergized National Campaign returned to Congress.

“The campaign had been doing insistent, silent work, on a smaller scale, and what Ni Una Menos brought was popularity,” said María Florencia Alcaraz, author of the book Que Sea Ley: The Fight of the Feminisms for Legal Abortion.

In early February, Fernández announced that he would be submitting his own version of a bill to Congress just days before millions of feminists marched on International Women’s Day across Mexico, Chile, and Argentina. But then the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and organizing across the continent shut down.

As rates of domestic violence increased across the world and women shouldered heavy loads of care work, Argentine feminists urged their government to recognize the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women. Arguing that women faced a reproductive health crisis within a public health crisis, the National Campaign and Ni Una Menos asked the Fernández administration to submit its bill to Congress amid Covid-19, which it did in November.

By mid-December, the lower house of Congress had approved the bill, and it was off to the Senate. Preparing for a vigil of proportions not seen since 2018, the National Campaign began organizing safety precautions to keep demonstrators healthy, reminding them to bring masks and take care of one another.

Two of the women in charge of safety precautions were Rosana Fanjul, 46, and her daughter Ximena, 22—Dora Coledesky’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter.

“When I was 17, I accompanied her two or three times to the table at El Molino to volunteer,” Rosana Fanjul said. “It was the year 1988, and with a megaphone they asked for signatures to present a bill in favor of the legalization and decriminalization of abortion. A word that only existed in the intimate lives of women. Now, since 2018, it is the topic of dinner conversations between friends and family.”

On Wednesday, as they stood with the thousands of others who had turned out to await the Senate’s vote, Fanjul and her daughter hung a giant green bandana outside El Molino in honor of the generations of organizers who brought them to that moment.

Fanjul said that her grandmother’s memory was with her throughout the day, especially when the campaign played videos of her on giant screens outside of Congress. “Even though I’ve seen them before, I’m always excited to hear her again,” Fanjul said.

Colodesky and her peers “began to construct the legal, political, philosophical, scientific, medical arguments that accompany us in our fight today,” said María Jose Corvalán, a member of the National Campaign. “The arguments that we have today, the same words that the legislators spoke in Congress arguing in favor of this law, are the same arguments that these pioneers constructed and were advancing at that time.”

Alcaraz said just as the grandmothers of the pro-choice movement “brought some of the learnings and knowledge from [the countries where they were exiled] to Argentina,” she hopes that all of Argentina’s knowledge “will go out across Latin America,” inspiring abortion legalization from Bolivia to Guatemala.

“The collective force of feminism is the hope of another possible world that we are already putting into practice. For this, it is essential to sustain and nurture our international networks,” said Palmeiro. “To our companions across the world, who join us in our fight, we say that we are also there for them. Together, we are all one nosotras.”

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