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ARGENTINA | 01-06-2019 09:38

Abortion-rights activists renew battle in Argentina

Lawmakers launch fresh bid to legalise abortion, presenting a new bill to Congress and resuming a battle that has divided the nation, ahead of October’s general election.

Lawmakers, activists and campaigners launched a renewed effort this week to change the law and legalise elective abortions after narrowly falling short last year.

A vast crowd – dominated by women dressed in green, the colour that has come to symbolise the movement – gathered outside the National Congress building in central Buenos Aires on Tuesday to illustrate their support for the bill. Similar protests took place in cities and towns across Argentina.

At a press conference that same day, lawmakers said they were introducing a new bill that would legalise abortion for pregnancies up to 14 weeks. A similar measure last year passed the Lower House of Congress but was defeated in the Senate under heavy opposition by religious groups.

The new bill is being put forward by 15 lawmakers from a range of parties, including President Mauricio Macri’s ruling Cambiemos coalition and opposition parties.

The movement behind the legislation came closer than ever to approval and activists have promised to continue their campaign to expand women’s reproductive rights.

The new legislation was being introduced as demonstrations marking the International Day of Action for Women’s Health were held in Argentina and other nations. Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Buenos Aires chanting, singing and cheering.

“After last year’s rejection, it’s evident that abortion continues to be practised in terrible conditions and women continue to die,” said Amnesty International Argentina Director Mariela Belski.

“Everyone has to be able to decide responsibly. Abortion is not easy, but there has to be legislation that allows them to do it with dignity,” tourist guide Noelia Patruno, 40, said as she demonstrated.

As she spoke, across the plaza in front of Congress, a smaller group of anti-abortion activists struggled to make themselves heard.

“A society that proposes death is not a fair one. Life begins at conception,” said Nelida Rodríguez, a 50-year-old store owner wearing a blue scarf to signify the anti-abortion movement.

“Why come back with a bill when it was rejected last year?”

ILLEGAL PROCEDURES

Argentina now allows abortion only in cases of rape or a risk to a woman’s health. But women continue to undergo illegal abortions and thousands of women, mostly poor, are hospitalised each year for complications. The Health Ministry estimates more than 350,000 clandestine abortions are carried out each year, while human rights groups put the number as high as a half million.

The new legislation differs from last year’s because it doesn’t include a section that would have granted doctors the right “to a conscientious objection” to the process. It also would protect women who carry out their own abortions from any sanctions and includes a section focused on sexual education and counselling for women.

The measure would also establish prison terms of three months to one year for health establishments or doctors who “unjustifiably delay,” block or refuse to carry out an elective abortion within the terms of the law. It would set longer prison terms if such actions damaged a woman’s health or caused her death.

“Being a mother should be a choice, not an obligation,” said Jenny Durán, a member of the abortion rights campaign. “We call on lawmakers to do the right thing — listen to women’s voices and respect our right to make our own decisions about our bodies.”

Ruling party lawmaker Daniel Lipovetzky said “it won’t be so easy” to debate a proposal that divides people so much during an election year. “But this is an issue that needs to be debated by society,” he said.

Last year, President Macri had promised to sign the legislation if it passed Congress even though he opposes abortion. After it was rejected in the Senate, the president said the debate would continue.

PRESSURE ON

Victoria Tesoriero, a leader of the Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, said activists would keep the pressure on lawmakers ahead of the election, in which a third of Senate seats and half of those in the Lower House will be contested.

“Presenting the new bill is not only a return to the offensive for abortion rights, but to put pressure on the party lists to make sure that every candidate clearly states their preference,” said Tesoriero.

The bill is unlikely to return to the Senate before the end of this year, given the elections, observers say.

“This time, the issue is already well embedded in society,” said Tesoriero. “It will be a more natural question for candidates, who will have to say what position they will take to Congress.”

Amnesty International said the bill was a new opportunity to guarantee women’s rights in a country where abortions continued to be carried out in “deplorable conditions.”

The campaign has gained international visibility in recent weeks with the airing of a documentary by Argentine director Juan Solanas at the Cannes Film Festival last week, where Spanish director Pedro Almodovar and actress Penelope Cruz showed their support by wearing green scarves.

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