Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As 2020 comes to a close, there’s a bright spot at the tail end of a long, dark year: Argentina just made women’s rights history.
On Wednesday, a majority of its Senate voted yes on a bill to legalize abortion up to 14 weeks into a pregnancy – a significant liberalization of the current law, which generally prohibits the procedure, and only allows exceptions for rape and the pregnant woman’s health. President Alberto Fernández has pledged to sign the bill into law, which will make Argentina the largest nation in Latin America to legalize abortion, and one of just a tiny handful of countries in the region where women are allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to continue a pregnancy.
But it’s not just about legal abortion, Giselle Carino, an Argentinean feminist who is the CEO and regional director of International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region, told me. “It’s also the notion that women are whole,” she said. “It’s about public health and saving one’s life, but here it’s also a bigger notion of how you can be a true part of the democratic process, and that’s the notion of citizenship.”
Since 2018, this is what many Argentinian women have been yelling on the streets: That for women to be full sovereign citizens and equal participants in society, they need full sovereignty over their own bodies.
This victory comes after decades of feminist advocacy and a women’s movement that has demanded its issues be understood as interconnected and overlapping. The message of Argentinean feminists: You can’t separate out the right of a woman to decide what happens to her reproductive system from the right of a woman to decide what happens to the rest of her body and the rest of her life – that is, there are connections between abortion rights and the right to live free from violence, the right to go to school, the right to be paid fairly, the right to political representation and the right to chart one’s own course.
These feminists asked: How can a woman plan her future and follow her dreams if she can’t decide for herself when and whether to have children? How can we tell women they have the right to live free of male control and violence, and then allow the state to control their reproductive lives, forcing them to continue pregnancies, risk their health and their lives, and give birth against their will?
The abortion-rights movement in Argentina, Carino tells me, has gone hand in hand with the fights against gender-based violence and gender discrimination more broadly, because women’s lives aren’t segmented into political buckets.
The symbol of this movement has been the green handkerchief, and it has spread across Latin America to symbolize a commitment to women’s rights. “Walking the streets in Argentina anywhere, you see the young girls wearing the green handkerchiefs in their backpacks as they go to school,” Carino says to me. “It’s become a symbol of freedom and citizenship.” And it’s a resonant one in a nation where mothers who lost their children during the dictatorship would march with white headscarves, demanding answers for the “disappeared.”
The reality of abortion in Argentina is the same as it is in many other nations where the procedure is outlawed or strictly limited: Some lucky women with means are able to work the system or find relatively safe but clandestine options to end unwanted pregnancies, while women with fewer means – often rural, indigenous, and poor women – have fewer options, and are often forced to either resort to less safe methods or to carry a pregnancy they desperately do not want.
All of those women, but most often the poor ones, risk being maimed or dying if an unsafe abortion goes wrong, or going to jail if they are caught by police. All of them are being stigmatized – effectively told by their country that they are criminals who should be ashamed – for a choice tens of millions of women make elsewhere around the world make every year.
Even in cases where abortion is permitted in Argentina – rape, for example – girls and women who live in rural areas or who don’t have the resources to navigate the legal and medical systems often wind up with no choice at all. And if an over-zealous law enforcement official wants to send an anti-abortion message, women and doctors wind up treated like criminals, even when they comply with the law.
The costs of restrictive abortion laws are high: According to the World Health Organization, unsafe abortion remains a leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide and women die from unsafe abortions in the highest numbers in nations where it is illegal or difficult to access. For every woman who dies from an unsafe abortion, thousands more are seriously injured – some 7 million women are hospitalized every year from unsafe abortions in developing nations, and globally, more than half a billion dollars is spent every year treating complications from unsafe and usually illegal procedures. Across Latin America, Guttmacher Institute research shows that most abortions are not safe abortions.
Argentina is an upper middle-income country and a regional leader. Legalizing abortion could have broad ripple effects from Brazil to Chile to Colombia and beyond. Yes, there are the usual opponents: The religious right, which in Pope Francis’s homeland means the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical groups. But Argentinean feminists say there has been a sea change, especially among the young, and that the Covid-19 pandemic has raised the stakes even higher.
As in so many other nations, in Argentina there is evidence of a significant uptick in domestic violence during the lockdown, and women’s rights groups are documenting more murders – because for women, being trapped at home too often means being trapped with an abuser or a rapist. It’s still too early for full, reliable data. But anecdotally, this has been a terrible year for women’s economic stability, our professional advancement and our basic personal safety.
Which is one reason why it’s such a big deal that Argentina, a divided nation in the midst of a global pandemic, legally confirmed that women have a right to bodily autonomy.
“We have all had a terrible year,” Carino says to me. But, she says, this shows “that we can overcome and resist and continue fighting and eventually succeed, even in the oddest of circumstances possible.”