In mid-2018, one million people took to the streets of Argentina to urge Congress to pass a bill that would legalize abortion. It wasn’t the first time, and it would not be the last. The Green Wave, as the movement is known around the world, imbued girls, women, and people who can become pregnant with the hope that they might enjoy greater citizenship rights. The Senate rejected the bill by a slim margin.
Two years later, as cross-movement political alliances strengthened the battle, another piece of legislation reached Congress. For anyone looking at it from the outside, the climate hardly seemed ripe for the feminist agenda. Argentina was in its third straight year of recession, and the Covid-19 pandemic increased the proportion of those living in poverty from 35% to 40% in the first half of 2020 alone. Reports of domestic violence rose by at least 25%.
In December 2020, the Green Wave took to the streets again. Defying social distancing guidelines aimed at containing the pandemic, masked crowds once again flooded the streets, where they held vigils, sang songs, and protested in an atmosphere of positive energy. The bill passed and on December 30, 2020, abortion became legal in Argentina up to the fourteenth week of pregnancy.
How was it possible to legalize abortion in such an unfavourable climate?
Argentina is a heavily Catholic country that has been shaped profoundly by colonial patriarchy. Pope Francis, an Argentinian, has been a rebel in speaking out against inequality and poverty, but he is also complicit with the Catholic Church patriarchy, which continues to persecute women through anti-abortion zealotry. Argentina is in the throes of an economic crisis intersected by a public health crisis, and it might have seemed an inopportune moment to raise the sensitive topic of abortion rights, just as the country was grappling with matters of survival. The Green Wave proved this thesis wrong—abortion is a crucial issue when it comes to women’s survival.
The struggle to legalize abortion in Argentina began long ago. Launched in 2005 and now comprising over 300 Argentinian organizations and groups, the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortions has submitted legislation to legalize abortion nearly a dozen times. Some of the campaign coordinators are feminists who survived the country’s 1970s military dictatorship. Although these women fought for the implementation of an agenda of sexual and reproductive rights during re-democratization, these issues were deemed of minor importance to the reconstruction of democracy.
The historic campaigning by the Argentinian feminist movement to legalize abortion does not in itself explain the transformation that took place. I would like to explore two elements I consider central to the success of the Green Wave: first, intergenerational dialogue within both civil society and representative politics and, second, cross-movement alliances formed by feminists and other social groups.
Within the Green Wave, the “revolución de las pibas” has played a big role—the “daughters’ revolution,” where throngs of girls, teens, and young women have engaged in protests with the support of their mothers and grandmothers. After starting in the streets, this intergenerational dialogue altered the profile of institutional politics in Argentina. Between the 2018 and 2020 votes in Congress, the country held presidential elections. For the first time in history, in 2019, democracy’s debt to women was a major topic on the campaign trail, with all but one of the presidential contenders acknowledging the need to make some change to abortion laws.
President Alberto Fernández was elected on a pledge to submit a bill to legalize abortion. Under pressure from feminists near and far, he fulfilled his promise in his first year in office. During the December 2020 congressional vote, 69% of legislators under the age of 40 said yes to the law, while 39% of those above 60 did. When Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted his criticism of Argentina’s decision, Ofélia Fernandez—elected to represent Buenos Aires in 2019 at the age of 19, making her Latin America’s youngest lawmaker—replied with a warning about the strength of Latin American feminism.
Argentina’s feminist movements have also made headway by forming cross-movement alliances and thus pluralizing arguments in favor of the right to choose whether, how, when, and with whom to have children. Feminist groups of faith, such as Catholics for the Right to Choose, were on the frontlines during the secularization of the debate. The fight to legalize abortion was also placed center stage by the powerful movement Ni Una Menos (Not One Less), which includes the loss of lives to unsafe abortions in its protests against gender violence and femicide. The alliance forged with LGBTI movements, and especially the trans movement, is evident in the text of the law itself, which protects the rights not just of women but also of “people with other gender identities who are able to gestate.”
Framing the legalization of abortion as a public health and social justice issue also helped establish common ground with activists and lawmakers tied to labor movements and other movements outside big cities. The argument that safe abortions have always been available in Argentina to those who can afford them likewise won over personalities in the world of the arts and among intellectuals and other figures, like the late Diego Maradona, a soccer star both controversial and beloved. The recognition that abortion is part of a broader agenda of reproductive justice also influenced legislative strategy: the bill to legalize abortion was passed alongside a bill to expand social protection during a child’s first one thousand days of life.
Argentina’s path to legalizing abortion offers no formulas for achieving feminist transformation because there are no formulas for change. The struggle depends on the specific features of each political context. Yet intergenerational dialogue and cross-movement alliances may serve as inspiration for other countries in Latin America and elsewhere around the world at a time of growing authoritarianism and religious conservativism. In the words of Ofélia Fernández, the Green Wave’s young lawmaker: “This is just the beginning.” As feminists and human rights defenders from all corners of the world, we have the duty to take the fight forward, even when—or precisely because—the decks are stacked against us. We cannot afford to do otherwise when it comes to justice.
Giselle Carino is an Argentinian political scientist and the CEO for the International Planned Parenthood Federation Western Hemisphere Region (IPPFWHR)