Argentina: Fighting for life

Argentina: Fighting for life

Is the Pope’s homeland about to liberalise abortion?

With the exception of Uruguay, abortion laws in Latin America have always favoured the unborn child. That may be about to change. This June, in the Pope’s homeland, the lower house of Congress is due to vote on the legalisation of abortion up to 14 weeks.

Preliminary debates in Congress are gripping the country. Compared to major inquiries in Britain, Argentine debates tend to be more wide-ranging: testimony is heard not just from senior medics but also from figures such as prominent actresses, as well as representatives of Buenos Aires’s slums. Outside Congress, pro-lifers clap and dance to songs celebrating life.

President Mauricio Macri (pictured), who previously said he would “defend the right of life from birth until death”, is allowing lawmakers a free vote on the issue. Explaining why, he referred to Argentina’s high rate of teenage pregnancies. “Each year there are 100,000 pregnancies among women or children under 19,” he said. “Seven out of those 10 are unintentional. The lives of those young people change forever.” An increase in support for legalising abortion may have something to do with it, too. A poll in 2006 found that 37 per cent were in favour of abortion for any reason. This year, it was 49 per cent.

The Argentine bishops’ conference, which met last month to prepare its own statement on the debate, underlined the need “not to deny human rights to the weaker and more vulnerable”, adding that as a “progressive nation we must have the capability, creativity and ingenuity to seek new solutions that will resolve our problems, without resorting to killing, or ‘interrupting’, the lives of humans”.

The bishops may be referring partly to a law proposed in March calling for “adoption in the womb” – the idea that a woman who wants to have an abortion should hand over her child for adoption to a pre-allocated family once the child is born.

Feelings have been running high in the debates. Muriel Santa Ana, an actress, described having an illegal abortion, provoking a strong reaction online. Later a pregnant stenographer ran out in tears, horrified at images of a late-stage abortion.

Lorena Fernández, a representative of Villa 31, a slum in Buenos Aires, spoke caustically of the proposed law, arguing that 13-year-olds needed better sex education rather than lax abortion laws. She illustrates a divide in Argentina: among poorer Argentines, pro-life sentiment is higher. In the poorer northern provinces only 40 per cent want legal abortion; in Buenos Aires, it is 67 per cent.

The country is in the midst of massive economic changes. As it forgets its isolationist past and enters a neoliberal future, some are keen to adopt Western laws surrounding abortion. Argentina would be the most populous country in Latin America to do so. Pro-lifers around the world – including one Argentine expat in Rome – will be watching with dismay.