In the darkness, they had gathered in their thousands, filling the streets that surround the Congressional Palace at the heart of Buenos Aires. Clad in the green face-masks and handkerchiefs that have become synonymous with Argentina’s movement for women’s liberation, pro-choice activists assembled on Tuesday night for the verdict of their lawmakers. Inside, senators entered the 12th hour of a marathon debate.
It was just after 4:00 AM, with the sky beginning to lighten at the coming of the dawn, when the result of the vote came through. In the end it was decisive: 38-29 in favour of the legalisation of abortion up to 14 weeks into pregnancy.
If, like me, you support a woman’s right to choose, then it is hard to watch the jubilant scenes which followed without emotion. Rarely this year have people had a reason to gather and celebrate together, but these activists did on Tuesday night. And when the vote was announced, they erupted in joy.
“It is a historic day, there is nothing more to say,” said one woman interviewed by the BBC. Indeed it was. The legislation passed in the small hours of Wednesday morning is unprecedented in Argentina. Up until this point, abortions in the predominantly Catholic country had only been allowed in cases of rape or if the health of the mother was at risk. In August 2018, similar legislation had been rejected by the senate by a vote of 38-31. The reversal in support is testament to the relentless and passionate activism of the pro-choice movement.
Thanks to this decision, Argentina’s women have taken control of their reproductive rights. Perhaps most importantly, safe, state-sanctioned terminations will now take the place of clandestine alternatives, which are believed to have caused nearly 40,000 women to be admitted to hospital in Argentina in 2016 alone, in addition to 65 deaths in the 2016-18 period. “Never again will there be a woman killed in a clandestine abortion,” said an emotional Vilma Ibarra, the legislator who drafted the new law.
But what makes the passage of this legislation especially remarkable is its rejection of the traditional Catholic orthodoxy which has long held sway in Latin American lawmaking. On the 17th of December 1936, the present Pope, Jorje Mario Borgoglio, better known as Francis, was born in the very same city, Buenos Aires, which was filled with cheering activists on Tuesday night. Hours before the senate debate began, Francis had tweeted his support for the pro-life side: ‘The Son of God (…) came into the world as each child comes into the world, weak and vulnerable’. Thankfully a sufficient number of Argentina’s lawmakers paid the self-proclaimed mouthpiece of God no heed.
On matters of sex and procreation, the attitude of the Vatican has remained unrelentingly regressive. To say it is out of touch would be like saying Ian Paisley wasn’t keen on gays. That the Church would abandon its insistence on the sanctity of life at the point of conception is, at present, unforeseeable. Yet this is a position which grants the same rights to a foetus as it does to the woman bearing it. It is at times a deranging ideological argument; a fact perfectly illustrated when the late Mother Teresa, on accepting her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 declared:
“The greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child in her own womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other? (…) To me the nations who have legalized abortion, they are the poorest nations.”
In reality, quite the opposite is true. But for fanatics like Mother Teresa (who was canonised by Pope Francis in 2016), the fact that giving women control over their reproductive cycle is universally correlated with higher levels of family income and state development is neither here nor there.
On the matter of contraception, Pope Francis has defended Pope Paul VI’s encyclical of 1968, Humanae vitae, which forbade the use of artificial contraception, as an example of his ‘courage’ to ‘defend moral discipline’. Fascinatingly, when it comes to birth control, the Vatican appears to have lost the support of its own followers. A 2014 Univision poll found that 93% of Catholics in Brazil and 84% in Italy favoured the use of contraceptives, while in the U.S., a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that only 13% of weekly Mass-going Catholics thought contraception was morally wrong. Enormous encouragement should be taken from these statistics. They demonstrate the ability of moderate Catholics worldwide to successfully discern that the Vatican’s simultaneous opposition to the means of preventing pregnancy, and to the means of ending it, is not a position which deserves their support.
In fact, to return to events in Argentina, those religiously moderate politicians who were able to put the people they serve before the conservative wing of their faith deserve nothing but praise. Chief among them was the country’s president, Alberto Fernandez, who stated in the aftermath of the vote: “I’m Catholic but I have to legislate for everyone.” Well said, sir, you do indeed.
There is much work still to be done in Latin America. Abortion remains totally prohibited in El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Brazil’s criminal code enforces jail time of between one and three years for those convicted of deliberately terminating their pregnancy. The leader of that nation, Jair Bolsonaro, said in response to the decision of the Argentine senate: “I deeply regret for the lives of Argentinian children, now subject to being ended in the bellies of their mothers with the state’s agreement.”
For those of us who take the opposite view to Mr Bolsonaro, Tuesday night represented a victory for common sense over religiously-fuelled conservatism. The Argentine senate was witness to moderate Catholics willing to renege on official church doctrine so that women be given full control of their bodies. Their example is admirable. The Papacy and the more conservative elements of the church that it leads should take stock. To continue to interfere in the most personal aspects of a human being’s life risks draining their relevance still further.