The rising green tide: Fighting for reproductive justice in Argentina

Introduction by Ana Cecilia Dinerstein followed by an interview with María Alicia Gutiérrez (Leader of the Argentine Campaign for the Legalization of Abortion) by the author (*)

The year 2020 ended on a triumphant note for the feminist movement in Argentina. Following a sustained and resolute struggle led by women, the Argentinian Congress consented to pass a bill making abortion legal in the country in December. Beginning the 24th of January, the provisions of the new “National Law for the Access to the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy” (Interrupción Voluntaria del Embarazo, [IVE]), No 27.610) have been made available to every person with the capacity to gestate (i.e. Cis-women, non-binary and trans men). Those who desire to have an abortion can do so now in a public hospital without the need to explain causes or give reasons up to the fourteenth week of their pregnancy. The country has begun reorganizing the public health sector to implement this new protocol for the people’s right to legal interruption of pregnancy. In this article, I explore the history as well as the context of the Argentinian struggle for the legalization and reproductive justice. This is followed by my interview with María Alicia Gutiérrez, a Professor of Reproductive Health at the University of Buenos Aires and a long-term member of the National Campaign for Legal Abortion, and a Professor of reproductive health at the University of Buenos Aires.

The genesis of the movement

Before the passage of IVE, women did not have access to legal abortion in Argentina, and exceptions were only very rarely considered in the case of rape or risk to the health of a woman. Even then, the ultimate decision lay with the health professionals – and they could refuse to perform a procedure on the grounds of religious belief or to avoid criminal action and possible imprisonment. That, however, never stopped abortions from taking place, and only increased the risk of self-harm and death. [1] In fact, clandestine abortion is the main cause of maternal mortality in Argentina, and data from the Ministry of Health (2018) indicates almost 500,000 illegal interventions per year. In 2016, there were 245 maternal deaths, 43 of which were produced by illegal abortions. This was an urgent public health matter in Argentina, as it has been in the rest of the world. The World Health Organisation estimates that there are “around 22 million unsafe abortions per year in the world, 98% of them in developing economies. These abortions result in 47,000 deaths per year, and two-thirds of them are in Africa.” [2]   

In 2018, the Argentine Ministry of Health indicated that there were nearly 500,000 illegal interventions occurring annually in the country.

For years the feminist movement had led a protracted struggle for legal abortion rights in Argentina, and this was the seventh attempt at passing a bill in the Congress. While the fight had intensified in the past 15 years, it acquired new energy and urgency about three years ago as feminist groups launched a new campaign to make it clear to politicians that women and society were ready for change. The Campaign brought social activists, feminists, women, LGTB+ and the trans community together on a shared platform. In 2018, despite the Catholic Church and other religious groups being against it, conservative former President Mauricio Macri declared in his inaugural speech [3] to the Congress that it was necessary to reopen the abortion debate. He acknowledged the increasing social awareness regarding legal abortion not just as a matter of women’s rights but also as a public health issue. In the same year the Campaign presented a petition to the Congress and gathered 71 signatures from MPs with different political affiliations – enough to ensure that the matter would be debated in parliament. This was a big step forward, leading to the passage of the Bill at the end of 2020.

Public advocacy and outreach

The Campaign’s inspiring slogan, ‘Education to decide – Contraceptives not to abort – Abortion not to die[4] represents three clear, reasonable and inspirational maxims, which are now reflected in the new legislation. In contrast to the right-wing religious groups’ fundamentalist tropes about women’s role in society, the Campaign promoted sexual education for women to help them decide the issues of their own reproductive health, and understand as well as have control over their bodies. It also called for contraceptives to be made more readily available to avoid abortion in the first place, and for abortion to be a possibility when the first two efforts fail.

In addition to the advocacy campaign, public protests were an important part of the feminist movement’s mobilization strategy. In particular, four marches organized by the feminist group Ni Una Menos (No One Less) [5] were crucial in advancing the abortion legislation in the Congress. Ni Una Menos has argued that criminalization of abortion must be seen as a part of the larger issue of violence against women, as incidents of rape, abduction, as well as sexual, psychological and economic abuse have soared in Argentina. [6] The critical point here is that in a broader sense the struggles surrounding social reproduction are, in fact, the struggles for reproducing the society itself. Violence against women harms the entire society, and it is a global health emergency. The continuity of life on this planet depends on the eradication of this violence. The war against women’s bodies is not an anomaly, but, in fact, an inalienable part of the contemporary society, dominated as it is by patriarchal colonial capitalism. The deliberate ‘denial of medically available and necessary services’ to women, including abortion, is how patriarchy inflicts violence on women, and has been classified in a recent United Nation’s report as a form of torture. [7]

The Senate preparing to vote on the abortion bill.

Debates in the Congress

The first important legislative debate on the question of legalizing abortion took place in the Chamber of Deputies of the Congress, in June 2018, when experts, activists, politicians as well as the general public made extensive and in-depth presentations to the parliamentarians to help them make an informed decision on the issue. In her own remarks, our interviewee, María Alicia Gutiérrez, an expert in reproductive health and a leader of the Campaign, communicated something vital to the representatives: “the right to safe, secure and free abortion is a collective right that responds to the broader demand for reproductive justice.”  This was an appeal to situate the discussion in the broader historical context of patriarchal and colonial relations, and to venture beyond the familiar comfort of the liberal idea of “choice” to an intellectually more precise and rigorous intersection of class and race. Historically, the issue of birth control has been interpreted and experienced contrastingly by women based on their class and ethnicity. Commenting on Angela Davis’ work, Barbara Sutton suggests that abortion is a complex issue that feminist movements have not always got right. In the colonial past “[w]hile economically privileged white women did not want to be forced into motherhood (and thus demanded the right to abortion), women of color were being prevented from having children (for example, through compulsory sterilization).” [8] Conscious of this history, the feminist Campaign in Argentina deliberately enunciated the issue of class in its approach to abortion, while also working closely with gender diversity groups to make it possible for not only women but “all people with the ability to procreate” to benefit from the legislation. This concurs with the principles of the Argentine Gender Identity Law, which allows trans men to be able to have an abortion.

The rise of the green tide – Redefining activism

María Alicia points out that the most significant achievement of the Argentine Campaign for legal, safe and free abortion has been its insistence on an intersectional analysis of the barriers to reproductive freedom. This helped facilitate the “social” decriminalisation of abortion even before the Bill itself was passed, and abortion became legalised. Intersectional spaces opened up where women of all ages and ethnicities, gays and lesbians, the non-binary and trans community, as well as the general public brought their diverse perspectives to the Campaign, making it easier for the larger society to acknowledge and accept the importance of sexual education, public reproductive health, and legal, secure and free abortion.

While its analytical efforts were characterized by intellectual rigor, the Campaign’s messaging and outreach strategy were also set in uniquely captivating symbolism. Women and other supporters sporting green scarves – around their necks, heads and wrists – became a ubiquitous image of the Campaign’s public engagement right from the days when it was initiated in 2005. Representing life and hope, the green scarf evokes powerful memories of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo – a group of women whose children were abducted and disappeared during the last dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1982). They began wearing white handkerchiefs to draw attention to the tragic agony they had suffered. Likewise, the women in green scarves turned their focus on abortion rights into a national reckoning.  When the representatives debated the law in the Chamber of deputies in 2018, the activists engulfed the area around the building of the Congress like a green tide. They became the protagonists of their own destiny instead of submitting to the judgement of the Catholic Church or other secular and religious anti-abortion groups when it came to their reproductive rights. It was a forceful re-enactment of struggles where women have been at the forefront of revolutionary resistance, both, as the engines as well as enablers of movements, and daringly conspicuous on the front lines. [9]

The green tide movement was a moment of national reckoning in Argentina.

The effort and energy put into the Campaign for legalizing abortion pushed the bill through the Chamber of Deputies after a close vote (129 votes to 125) on June 14th, 2018. Unfortunately, however, it was defeated in the Chamber of Senators, where the provinces are represented. This happened despite opinion polls showing strong support for the bill, and the presence of almost a million people on the streets. The Catholic Church and the anti-rights movement had won the first round. But, a patient and sustained effort over a period of two years paid dividends when the Chamber of Senators brought the bill back for consideration and passed it with a 38 to 29 vote, making safe, legal and free abortion a legal right in Argentina. When I spoke with María Alicia Gutiérrez, she told me that Alberto Fernández’s government had reassured the Campaign that they will work on the implementation of the new bill as a matter of urgency, and that the President will consult the Campaign, the feminist movement, and social organizations on that process. My first question, naturally, was about the sincerity of that promise:

Ana Cecilia Dinerstein: Do you trust the President?

María Alicia Gutiérrez: Well, I think it’s reasonable for us to trust him because President Fernández has already been working to offer women access to IVE and other reproductive health issues, despite the COVID-19 lockdown. Having said that, many of us in the Campaign think that he needs to set up an independent monitoring system in partnership with autonomous organizations from all over the country to supervise the actual implementation of the law, nationally. This is very important. We, obviously, want the government to develop and implement a strong and broad communication strategy to make sure that women and other beneficiaries learn and understand the scope of the law and how it can benefit them. This is a social right.  After our success and a little celebration of our victory, we have not been able to meet again as a Campaign because we are exhausted, and we are taking a break during the summer holidays. We will, however, have our Annual National Plenary in March, which is our platform for decision-making to explore follow up strategies.

ACD: The movement for legal abortion in Argentina has had to contend with severe opposition from the Church (including the Pope), conservative political parties, and their corporate backers and other followers. What do you think were the primary reasons why the movement was able to withstand this intense opposition and, yet, ultimately succeed?

MAG: The conservative and fundamentalist groups have been pressurising us for decades.  In the 1990s it was mainly the Catholic Church. However, new fundamentalist, Pentecostals and other quasi-religious groups also began to boycott the campaign. Some of them are very well organized and violent and use hate speech, harassment, and defamation of feminist activists and feminism. Our success has to do with having a solid as well as a flexible organization and we’ve adopted a horizontal strategy that has also been plural. We’ve established a national network, making strategic alliances with a variety of groups at different points in time during the last fifteen years of our existence.  The Campaign has been a democratic undertaking – as democratic as possible in a movement with so many dynamics, movements and people involved.  

The Argentine movement for abortion has been a bottom up democratic movement.

Our actions, all through the years, have been horizontal and rhizomatic. Our member organizations in different sectors of the society take independent action if needed, but also coordinate collective actions to support the Campaign’s organising process. Let me give you a few examples: the network of health professionals coordinated the effort to secure women’s right to decide and provides access to sexual and reproductive rights, information and help; our partners in the legal profession worked on the Criminal Code’s previous permission to interrupt pregnancy; and a network of teachers organized a comprehensive plan for sexual education in 2006. Similarly, the National Women’s Gatherings have existed for 38 years, and these have always been pedagogical spaces situated at an intersection of various issues and problems, and feminist approaches. In short, our Campaign’s success has to do with dedication, organization and dissemination via the media; working with feminist journalists, and doing a lot of research on the subject to back up our arguments. Right in the beginning of our struggle, we understood the need for intersectionality, and we also know that this is an intergenerational movement. All this creates conflict but also produces very creative synergies because we rely on history, experience and new ideas

ACD: The feminist critique of patriarchal colonial capitalism is becoming stronger and more powerful with time. It has also become less theoretical and more practical and palpable. You and I believe that if democracy fails women, it cannot be called democracy.  We agree that global feminism is the only movement fighting simultaneously against patriarchy, heterosexuality, racial discrimination, capitalism and colonialism. It is an incredibly exciting time for women in South America. Women in Brazil, Chile and Colombia are mobilizing and devising their own campaigns. As a result of this, right-wing politicians in power are feeling the heat. For example, on the 21st January, the National Party of Honduras and the Honduran Congress approved a reform of the article 67 of the national constitution. It puts a legal shield over the absolute prohibition of abortion, so as to prevent it from being legalised in the future. This amounts to prohibition something, which is already banned! Does this not demonstrate the fear that the Campaign’s success in Argentina could produce a cascading effect in the region?

MAG: Yes. It does. Although legal abortion already exists in a few Latin America countries, Argentina is the first large country in the region to have it. Its implementation throughout the country will benefit many people. I believe that the new law will have resonance in the rest of the region, and, above all, it will help to support the regional struggle against the new wave of conservative fundamentalism, which is advancing slowly but solidly in the region.

ACD: Following up on the previous question, are the Campaign’s communication strategies strong and creative enough to outlast its success? Do they have universal application? Would it be possible for other movements to adopt them?

MAG:  Our activism encourages plurality and diversity, and tries to adapt strategies to political and social situations; activism is at the service of the people. Our long and massive Campaign has been sustained throughout the country by people who have willingly offered their knowledge in medicine, law, communication, the Internet, art and design, and social and medical research. It was also good to have people on board, who could rethink and rewrite the arguments and present them to different audiences, including the Parliament, in relevant ways and formats. Above all, we have been building alliances with other complex movements, and not surprisingly we’ve had to deal with an ample amount of disagreement, too. 

As you know, except for Uruguay, Cuba and two states in Mexico, abortion is either banned or restricted in the entire region.  That has created a robust connection between the Campaign and feminists from the rest of the Latin American and the Caribbean region. In the 1990s, we created a regional Campaign for legalization of abortion in Latin America, Central America and the Caribbean (the 28th de Septiembre Campaign). This regional Campaign supports all the feminist struggles in their different forms, at different levels. Till 2017, it was coordinated from Nicaragua. But, subsequently, the regional coordination was allocated to Argentina precisely due to our huge capacity to mobilize. It is in this sense that we are in constant dialogue with campaigns from different countries. We adopted the green scarf in the whole region, though each country has its own inscription and its own communication strategy. We continue to explore how we can pursue the same goals while respecting the uniqueness of the different campaigns.

ACD: Can you tell us something about the new ultra conservative groups called Celestes? After having attained success, do you anticipate any pushback from them? How are you preparing to deal with that possibility?

MAG: What unifies all fundamentalist conservative groups is their attack on what they call the gender ideology. They accuse feminists, LGTB+ and transgender people of destroying the social order. It is important to note two things: first, that unlike the assertions of the Catholic Church, their arguments are not necessarily religious. They have moved from dogmatic ecclesiastic narratives to a discourse based on science, rights and ethics, which enables them to criticize the political system, public policy and civil rights for their inefficacy in resolving poverty, unemployment and the need for dignified conditions of life. They play the ‘democratic game’ to try to influence the democratic system. This is why these new groups are identified with one of the Argentine flag colours: light blue (celeste) and are called the Celestes. The second important issue, in conjunction with the previous one, is that their arguments are not just against abortion. They promote a civilizational project that will eventually bring back an imagined conservative order that would change our economic, political and social domains. They want to intervene in the politics of sexuality, with a return to the ‘sexual family’ with conservative complementary roles for men and women. They charge feminists of destroying the possibility of creating an ideal conservative paradise that only exists in their minds. They will continue push this fantasy in the public sphere, and we are equipping ourselves to identify their arguments and respond to them in the media and in the streets.[10]

ACD: That makes me curious about your engagements with the media – did the movement have to establish channels of subversive and insurgent message creation and dissemination, which challenged the corporate media? Did you try to create a credible and accessible alternative narrative to project a vision of a new future in the minds of the people in general and women in particular? What kinds of existing means of communication were used to further these goals?

MAG: The mainstream media never gave us any credit until 2018, when the debate about the legalization of abortion was opened for a public hearing in the Chamber of Deputies. This was a massive wake up call for the Media. And, then, from February 2018 onwards, there was a strong demand on us to explain our position. We were compelled to put together a strategy: we decided to give interviews only in pairs rather than individually, and we would always bring a doctor along, who would explain all the ‘scientific’ details and make us look “respectable” on TV. As much as it was possible, we tried to rotate our representatives in the interviewing process so as to avoid a focus on personalities.  We had women campaigners – preferably young – to present and defend our arguments on radio and TV, and then in Congress.  We also put together an essential dossier with the Campaign’s key arguments for a legal, safe and free abortion, and we distributed it widely. At times, when the mainstream media would withdraw its support, we would use alternative media, which in Argentina is well developed (e.g. radio). What is very important is that the Campaign created a strong communication working group dedicated to creating a new language and own aesthetics about abortion: highlighting reproductive justice, public health and education. In 2018, the network of feminist journalists who had accompanied much of the campaign, and who belonged to the mainstream media networks such as Clarín and La Nación assisted us in disseminating our goals and information as well as our arguments to the whole country.

ACD: How did the movement raise financial resources? Was it through crowdsourcing and other independent means? Was there any pressure of co-option from the moneyed interests? Can other movements learn from your experiences?

MAG: The Campaign has always had very limited financial resources; we receive donations from other regular feminist organizations. But in 2017, we began to notice that private individuals and other bigger organizations wanted to donate money to the Campaign. But it seems to me that, beyond the fact that money was always useful to sustain the Campaign’s infrastructure, particularly communication and dissemination, much of our activities are activist-driven and unpaid. Other movements may learn from our experience, but it is simply an experience of activism. People are internally elected to undertake different tasks, and all we do is deeply voluntary unpaid activist work. We were unified by our much-desired goal: the legalization of abortion and the attainment of reproductive justice more generally. All of us have jobs, and we contributed to the Campaign after work, doing whatever was required. Hence, what we could offer to others is our experience of patience and tolerance of all sorts of differences and challenges in each of the working groups.

The green tide movement forms a part of the continuing struggle against patriarchy and religious fundamentalism in South America.

ACD: Are there any emerging crossover trends between the feminist movement and the struggle against environmental degradation and climate change? Do you think the two movements could become more collaborative and mutually beneficial? How do you look at ecofeminism in the context of the success of your movement?

MAG: This question is quite challenging.  Many feminist groups are involved in environmental struggles against extractivism and fracking. They are at the forefront of the struggle against fires, against soya monoculture, etc. I don’t know with precision whether there are any crossover trends between the Argentine feminist movement with the struggle against environmental degradation and climate change that can be identified in a visible alliance. Having said that, in Buenos Aires, there is a new coalition between feminists and environmental groups united in the struggle against the privatization of public spaces along the main river, the Rio de la Plata.

We must work to achieve further collaboration and discuss mutual benefits with environmental organizations. I think that feminists and other groups have to rethink their political strategies because the advancement of the conservative fundamentalist groups is quite alarming. While they express themselves through a fight against what they call the gender ideology, the thrust of these conservative groups is towards a new and different civilization. They’ve conceived a deeply conservative model, with clearly fascist features that would allow them to make systemic changes. This is extremely dangerous. What has just happened in the USA with Trump’s supporters shows that fundamentalists’ strategy is to hollow out democracy from within, using the discourse of human rights to erode and disable structure that supports human rights. And their communication strategies are very effective.  So, it seems to me that social, environmental and feminist movements have to collectively rethink our struggles. I am not saying that we need a single universal struggle. But, yes, we do need a certain degree of consolidation of resistance, unifying the variety of struggles behind a common strategy. The hard task is to make sure that specific struggles continue working towards their goals, while simultaneously strategizing about a more comprehensive endeavor. At the moment, activists and thinkers are reflecting on this throughout the region.

———————————————————————

Ana Cecilia Dinerstein teaches sociology and critical, feminist and decolonial theories at the University of Bath (UK). Her research  on ‘global politics of hope’ connects Bloch’s philosophy of hope with social and grassroots movements’ autonomous praxis. She is a member of the core group of the Global Tapestry of Alternatives (https://globaltapestryofalternatives.org). Her publications include The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: The Art of Organising Hope (2015), Women Theorising without Parachutes (editor, 2016); Against a Closing World (editor, 2019) and World Beyond Work? (co-author, 2021). 

María Alicia Gutiérrez is a Sociologist, researcher and professor of Gender and Reproductive Health in the Faculty of Social Sciences, at the University of Buenos Aires. She is a member (leader) of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion in Argentina.

* The Interview was originally done in Spanish. Translated by Ana Cecilia Dinerstein.

[1]Ana C Dinerstein & Lucía Cirmi Obón. 2018. ‘Argentina votes to legalise abortion in latest victory for global feminism’, The Conversation, June 15, https://theconversation.com/argentina-votes-to-legalise-abortion-in-latestvictory-for-global-feminism-98299

[2] Cisne, V. Vaz Castro & G.  Cavalcante de Oliveira. 2018. ‘Unsafe abortion: a patriarchal and racialized picture of women’s poverty’ Katálysis, v. 21, n. 3, p. 452-470, set./dez. Florianópolis

[3] See former president of Argentina’s Inaugural Speech (2018):  https://www.abc.es/internacional/abci-macri-partidario-abrir-debate-sobre-despenalizacion-aborto-201803020144_noticia.html

[4]Educación para decidir; anticonceptivos para no abortar; aborto para no morir

[5] Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/jun/04/niunamenos-five-years-on-latin-america-as-deadly-as-ever-for-women-say-activists

[6]Ana Cecilia Dinerstein & Lucía Cirmi Obón. 2018. ‘Argentina votes to legalize abortion in latest victory for global feminism’, The Conversation, June 15, https://theconversation.com/argentina-votes-to-legalise-abortion-in-latestvictory-for-global-feminism-98299

7 M. Chesney-Lind and S. Tonmia Hadi. 2017. ‘Patriarchy, Abortion, and the Criminal System: Policing Female Bodies’ Women & Criminal Justice 27(1):73-88. DOI10.1080/08974454.2016.1259601

[8] Barbara Sutton. 2019. ‘Thinking about Reproductive Justice.’March 6, available at https://www.albany.edu/sites/default/files/2019-06/REVISED-FINALThinkingReprodJustice%20%28Sutton%29.pdf

[9] Ana Cecilia Dinerstein & Sarah Amsler. 2017. ‘Women on the Verge: The Essence of feminist struggle’, ROAR Magazine, January 24, https://roarmag.org/essays/women-on-the-verge/

[10] An example of this is this other interview with María Alicia Gutiérrez: ‘Quiénes son los nuevos celestes y su retórica laica, Página 12, 28 December 2020, at https://www.pagina12.com.ar/313972-quienes-son-los-nuevos-celestes-y-su-retorica-laica


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