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ARGENTINA | 05-03-2020 07:00

Argentina braces anew for abortion battle

In his first speech to Congress upon the arrival of a new legislative session, Alberto Fernández vowed to begin a project to legalise abortion in the coming weeks. Campaigners on both sides are preparing for another showdown.

President Alberto Fernández will fulfill an election pledge next week when he brings a bill before Congress aiming to legalise abortion, setting off the latest salvos in a debate that has bitterly divided the nation.

Thousands of women sporting the green scarves that have become synonymous with the campaign for legalised abortion plan to descend on the streets of Buenos Aires in a bid to ensure the Peronist leader keeps his promise.

Likewise, anti-abortion campaigners, including Catholics and Evangelicals, plan to demonstrate waving blue handkerchiefs to ensure the practice remains illegal in Argentina.

Mass pro-abortion rallies brought Buenos Aires to a standstill in 2018 — when abortion was last debated in the Congress — but were not enough to sway the conservative Senate, which rejected the bill after it had been passed by the lower house Chamber of Deputies.

But campaigners believe this time they have political momentum in their favour, and they made a show of force in their thousands two weeks ago with another rally outside Congress.

"Having a president who speaks in favor is a boost for all of us," Victoria Tesoriero, of the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito, told AFP.

"We understand that it's a historic moment and we have to stay organized on the street," she said.

'Abortion happens'

Fernández was blunt about legalising abortion in comments last weekend.

"Abortion happens. It is a fact. In the 21st Century every society needs to respect the individual decision of its members to freely do what they want with their bodies," he said.

Argentina has pioneered gay marriage and gender identity legislation in Latin America. If abortion is also approved, it would become only the fourth Latin American state to do so after Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana —though it is also allowed in Mexico City and the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Several Central American countries ban the practice altogether.

Latin American abortion activists were dealt a setback this week when the Constitutional Court in Colombia decided to keep in place the usual restrictions against abortion, when ruling on a case brought by an anti-abortion activist who wanted a total ban in all instances.

The usual exceptions apply under Colombian law, common across Latin America: cases of rape, when the foetus has serious health problems likely to affect its survival, or when there is a risk to the life of the mother.

Only two of those exceptions exist in Argentina, rape and maternal risk. Outside of those exceptions, abortion remains a crime in Colombia, Argentina, and most other countries — punishable by up to four and a half years in prison.

Church opposition

In Argentina, Fernández's position is steadfastly opposed by anti-abortion activists backed by the still-powerful Catholic Church.

The debate has fiercely divided Argentine society.

"The active militancy of the president worries us because we believe he will do everything possible to get this done," says Camila Duro, spokeswoman for the anti-abortion Frente Joven movement.

"We want to alert the political powers that be that there is a majority in the country, that goes out to vote and goes out on the streets, that does not agree with this bill to discard Argentines," she said.

Long a bastion of the Catholic Church, Argentina is the homeland of Pope Francis. But public attitudes towards religious belief have changed in the country.

The latest survey shows a doubling in the proportion of the population who believe a woman has a right to abortion. In 2008, that figure was 14 percent, in 2019 it had grown to more than 27 percent.

Street, Church

Hoping to form a sea of bandanas in the centre of Buenos Aires, pro-abortion activists are planning a major demonstration outside Congress next Monday.

"We are in a new stage of feminism, both in the country and throughout the region," said Tesoriero.

Catholic bishops have other ideas. On Sunday, they will hold a concelebrated mass at the Lujan basilica, 75 kilometres (47 miles) from Buenos Aires, to mark International Women's Day with the slogan: "Yes to Women, Yes to Life."

"The Church is willing to play a leading role and to somehow pressure the Fernandez government," said Duro.

Despite the Church's best efforts, abortion campaigners believe the political groundswell is with them and that Argentina will soon become the most populous Latin American nation to legalise the practice.

They point to around 400,000 abortions carried out every year, mostly in clandestine conditions marked by poor hygiene for the 37 percent of the population living below the poverty line. For the women who can afford it, private clinics are available for around US$1,000.

by Nina Negron & Carlos Reyes, AFP

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