Argentina Moves Toward Legal Abortion Amid Push for Women’s Rights

Argentina Moves Toward Legal Abortion Amid Push for Women’s Rights

13:50 - Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández has made the rights of women and of gay and transgender people central to his government, even through a recession and a pandemic.

BUENOS AIRES — Argentine lawmakers took a major step on Friday toward legalizing abortion and fulfilling a promise of President Alberto Fernández, who has made women’s rights a central tenet of his government.

The bill’s approval in Argentina’s lower house of Congress by 131 to 117 votes, after more than 20 hours of debate, was a legislative victory for Mr. Fernández, who has dedicated funding and political capital to improving conditions for women and for gay and transgender people, even as Argentina wrestles with the biggest financial crisis in a generation. The bill would still need to pass through the Senate to officially legalize abortion in the country.

“It’s a false dilemma to say it’s one thing or the other,” said Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Argentina’s minister of women, gender and diversity. “It isn’t as if you stop renegotiating the debt in order to pursue these policies.”

Argentina would become only the fourth nation — and by far the most populous — to make abortion legal in Latin America, where strict abortion laws are the norm and Catholic teaching has long steered policy.

Thousands of activists on both sides of the issue surrounded Congress from Thursday night into Friday morning, following the debate on giant screens.

They were divided into clearly designated areas depending on their positions. On one side, abortion rights activists turned their area into an open-air party, dancing through much of the hot summer night.

“I have goose bumps,” Stefanía Gras, a 22-year-old psychology student who stayed through the night, said after the vote. “I feel like we’re making history.”

Another, notably smaller group opposed to legalization, held open-air prayers all night, though most recognized the bill was likely to pass as the morning light crept across the sky.

“I feel profound sadness,” said Paloma Guevara, a 24-year-old nutritionist who had a megaphone and rallied alongside anti-abortion activists all night. “Our hope now is the Senate, and the good thing is, we’re more prepared than we were two years ago.”

Mr. Fernández, a center-left law school professor, campaigned as a champion of marginalized communities, drawing a contrast with his wealthy, center-right predecessor, Mauricio Macri. He placed gender and sexual orientation disparity alongside social, economic and racial inequality and promised to tackle them.

But he took office a year ago during a deep recession, and the coronavirus epidemic struck Argentina within three months of his swearing in. The country imposed one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns, but still the virus spread, leaving it among the nations with the highest death rates per capita.

Despite these hardships, Mr. Fernández, 61, kept gender and sexual orientation parity a priority in his government, surprising even some activists aligned with his initiatives.

Earlier this year, the government created a quota system that set aside at least one percent of federal public-sector jobs for transgender Argentines.

“It really was something that surprised us all,” said Maryanne Lettieri, an English teacher who leads an organization that helps fellow transgender people find jobs. “I hope someday we won’t need quotas, but now we need them.”

Mr. Fernández’s 2021 budget identifies more than 15 percent of projected spending as going to initiatives that would further gender parity, including funding violence prevention programs, bringing women who were not part of the formal labor force into the pension system, and fighting human trafficking.

Mr. Fernández has also asked his team to avoid scheduling meetings that include only straight men. Since August, any audience of more than four people with the president should have women or members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community make up one-third of participants.

The emphasis on making Argentina more equitable as the nation grapples with inflation, rising poverty and a crushing debt may appear to some like a distraction, or a populist ploy by Mr. Fernández. Some critics, such as Patricia Bullrich, a former security minister who now leads the PRO party of Mr. Macri, have argued that, at the very least, “it isn’t the right time” to discuss divisive issues like abortion.

“I would work much more on the economy and people’s realities,” she said on CNN Radio Argentina. “I’d have other priorities.”

But government officials say they see investments in making Argentina a fairer country as part of the path to a more prosperous future.

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