In 2018, after years of civil society efforts, Argentina’s congress discussed an initiative to legalise abortion for the first time. While the ban on abortion in most cases remains, those campaigning for reform believe the debate has progressed. CIVICUS speaks about the campaign to Edurne Cárdenas, a lawyer with the international team of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), an Argentine human rights organisation. CELS was founded in 1979, during Argentina’s military dictatorship, to promote human rights, justice and social inclusion. In its early years, CELS fought for truth and justice for the crimes committed under state terrorism, before expanding its agenda to include human rights violations committed under democracy, their structural causes and their relationship to social inequality. CELS advances its agenda through research, campaigning, alliances with others in civil society, public policy advocacy and strategic litigation in both national and international forums.
When did CELS, a classic human rights organisation, start working on sexual and reproductive rights, and why?
CELS has had great capacity to work in tune with the times and therefore to enrich its agenda progressively, always in alliance with social movements and other organisations. The idea of women’s rights as human rights was explicitly articulated at the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights. In the mid-1990s, and more precisely in 1996 I believe, the CELS annual report included contributions by women’s rights activists on reproductive rights. Over the following years, often in partnership with other organisations, CELS took part in submissions to human rights bodies: for instance, in 2004 we contributed to a shadow report submitted to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion was formed in 2005 and CELS joined in 2012. Shortly after those first articles were published in our annual report, our concerns about human rights violations gradually widened to encompass access to non-punishable abortions, as they are referred to in the Criminal Code - abortions that can be performed legally when the woman’s life or health are in danger or if the pregnancy in question is the product of rape. The issue was also incorporated as a result of the sustained work of feminist activists within our organisation.
In sum, CELS works on this issue because we understand that the criminalisation of abortion has a negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights by women. CELS’ key contribution was to place the abortion debate within the human rights sphere and to put into circulation human rights arguments to feed debate around the issue. CELS does not specialise in health issues, but we work in partnership with other organisations that examine the problem from that angle. From our point of view, this is an issue in which freedom and equality are at stake, and that is cross-cut by another theme - institutional violence - that was historically central to our work.
In 2018 the debate over legal abortion progressed in Argentina more than ever before, but not far enough for legal change to happen. What lessons do you draw from this experience?
In 2018, for the first time ever, an initiative to legalise abortion was debated in Congress. It was the seventh time that an initiative of this nature was introduced, and it was drafted and promoted by the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion. This is a network bringing together more than 500 organisations that form the women’s movement; it is well coordinated, horizontal and has 13 years of experience in this struggle. Before 2018, initiatives had not progressed, even within the congressional committees that had to issue an opinion to allow for debate to proceed to the full house. Argentina has a tradition of highly mobilised feminism and, since 2015, the campaign has had a lot of street presence and has made a clear demand for legal abortion. 2018 began with a novelty: in his opening speech of that year’s legislative session, the president raised the issue, which alongside feminist pressure enabled parliamentary debate. This was absolutely unprecedented. Regrettably, after being passed by the House of Representatives - the lower house - in June 2018, the initiative to legalise abortion was rejected by the Senate in August.
The whole process was led by the women's movement. All other movements and organisations aligned behind their leadership. In the House, the initiative succeeded because the strategy was multi-partisan and diverse, there was strong social movement participation and street pressure made itself heard. In the Senate, a more conservative chamber, additional work was required. Our alliances failed us, as we couldn’t make them as cross-cutting as they were in the House. A question that remains on the table, then, is how to reach out to the most conservative chamber of Congress with a demand that must necessarily be processed through it.
In addition, the defeat in the Senate made it clear that we need to work more to understand and counter the ‘post-truth’ discourse of our opponents. We are seeing conservative advances that put institutional quality, and ultimately democratic institutions, at risk. What was interesting in the process was that all citizens were able to find out and take note of what their representatives think and how they vote.
The results of this particular struggle could be called bittersweet. How much of a defeat, and how much of a victory were they, and why?
The pictures of disappointment on 9 August 2018, when the Senate rejected the initiative, do not tell the whole story. When we take stock, the list of what we won is much longer than the list of what we lost. Losses of course include a missed opportunity - but we only missed one opportunity, that of 2018, because I really believe that change is inevitable, and it is just a matter of time. I do not know if it will happen in 2019, but it will eventually. But one thing does need to happen in 2019: with elections due, all the issues that were put on the table during this process have to be part of the presidential campaign agenda.
We undoubtedly gained in terms of mass participation and public presence - both in the streets and in public opinion. In 2018 abortion was discussed like never before, so silences and taboos broke. But the process also had a negative side effect: because the issue that was placed on the agenda was so divisive, and mobilisation became so massive and acquired such centrality on the political scene, a strong reaction from the most conservative sectors ensued. These sectors gained a level of organisation and visibility that they did not have in the past.
As these conservative voices emerged, the debate on abortion rights also brought back into the discussion some things that we thought were long settled and part of a basic, untouchable consensus. These sectors began to say out loud certain things that they wouldn’t have dared say only a few years ago. Such was the case with the campaign ‘Do not mess with my children’ (Con mis hijos no te metas), against the implementation of the law mandating comprehensive sex education, which called into question the role of the state in education.
What role did CELS play in the legalisation campaign?
Throughout the process, the women’s movement’s leadership, and that of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, was undisputable. As a member of the Campaign, and alongside other human rights organisations, CELS made an important contribution in terms of organisation, coordination and argumentation.
Our history and experience give CELS much legitimacy. The fact that CELS speaks about abortion can make a difference when it comes to reaching broader audiences. Starting in 2014, when it seemed likely that the legalisation initiative would eventually be discussed in congressional committees, CELS began putting together input for the legislative debate, by revising jurisprudence and current standards and providing a justification as to why the debate on abortion had to be carried out from a human rights perspective.
At the same time, CELS participated as amicus curiae - friend of the court - in various court cases. Although we think that our ultimate goal, and the only one compatible with the recognition of women’s autonomy as full subjects of rights, is the legalisation of abortion, we have deemed it necessary to ensure in the meantime that the abortions that are already legal can be performed effectively, along the lines established for non-punishable abortions. In 2012, in its ruling in the F.A.L. case, the Supreme Court made very clear the conditions under which legal abortions can be performed and the obligations that this confers on the state. This ruling reflected the great work done by women’s rights and human rights movements on the streets, in hospitals, in academia and in the courts. But nonetheless, access remains very uneven, and even in more ‘advanced’ provinces barriers to legal abortions still exist. To a large extent, this reflects the structural limitations of a system that establishes a restrictive set of grounds allowing abortions, which inevitably fails because it depends on someone certifying the presence of those grounds. In addition, the current system ignores the most important among all possible grounds for abortion: the pregnant person’s will. This is precisely what the bill that was passed by the House put in the spotlight.
During the 2018 debate, CELS made several presentations in support of the initiative at public hearings in both houses of Congress. Our executive director and I presented at the House of Representatives - significantly, both at the opening and the closing of the debate - and our litigation director spoke at the Senate. At the beginning of the debate, we issued a publication that was endorsed by a large part of the women’s movement, feminists and organisations alike, with arguments, legislation and jurisprudence, to bring clear information to legislators.
We were also present on the streets, not only sharing the vigils that were held during the voting sessions, but also in organising, providing support and coordinating with the women's movement, with the other organisations within the Campaign for Legal Abortion and with high school students, health professionals and other mobilised groups. This coordination and the sustained presence of the movement on the streets were what made the difference during 2018. Finally, we defended the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, since throughout this process the groups mobilised against legal abortion perpetrated various acts of violence against legalisation activists.
You have repeatedly mentioned the existence of anti-rights groups. Do you think these groups are on the rise? If so, what can progressive civil society do to protect the rights already conquered and keep moving forward?
Anti-rights groups have indeed grown and are organised under a common umbrella, against what they call ‘gender ideology’. They saw this debate as an opportunity to organise like never before. Now they are more numerous: there used to be groups linked to the Catholic Church, but now there are also numerous groups with links to evangelical churches, well-organised and well-funded, alongside other groups that are not necessarily faith-based. Their presence demands our attention because their goals run against the rights of a large part of the population, as they seek to limit access to rights by children, women, lesbians, gays, transvestites and trans people. They are appearing throughout Latin America and their existence also raises questions about their alliances and goals: how and when did they arrive in Argentina? What are their demands? How far are they willing to go? We have seen that behind their ‘no to abortion’ they bring along a broader agenda that is linked to their rejection of so-called ‘gender ideology’, sexual education in schools, even vaccination, and who knows what else.
The progressive movement needs to think of a strategy to face them. The strength of the human rights movement is our use of creativity and the strategy of reason. On the other hand, what anti-rights movements do is mirror the strategies of the human rights movement. Now, although creativity and innovation give us an advantage, the anti-rights movement is making us waste our time discussing things we thought were long settled. To top it all, what we get into is not even an honest discussion, since the statements they make and even the data they use do not withstand the slightest fact check. The result is not actual debate - that is, a genuine exchange of arguments and reasons. Still, we have no alternative but to respond. So, when we engage in such ‘debate’, we do not really discuss with them or try to convince them, but we share our reasoning before an audience, in order to try and convince that audience. We take advantage of that simulation of a debate to make our point before public opinion. For this task, social media are key, although they have clearly been a double-edged sword. In fact, it was during this debate that we were able to see first-hand the way so-called ‘fake news’ operates, particularly when they find an echo in influential voices outside social media, who disseminate them elsewhere. It so happened, for instance, that totally fake data found on social media were quoted by legislators during the congressional debate. In that area, there is a lot of work for us to do.
Leading the debate agenda is one of the challenges that our movements face. To do this, we need to always be a step ahead in the discussion. We should not ‘debate’ with the anti-rights groups but speak to larger audiences and engage in discussion with elected representatives, whose obligation it is to pass laws for our common good and to ensure the state’s compliance with its obligation to enforce human rights. The debate over the legalisation of abortion was a spearhead to think about other issues. The system of limited grounds for legal abortion, similar to the one that has just been adopted in Chile, has been in place in Argentina since 1921. The transition from a system of grounds to a system of deadlines requires a simple legislative decision to amend the Criminal Code. Why such big fuss then? Because this debate puts other discussions on the table, including what we think the role of women is, what the role of the state should be, to what extent and regarding what issues the state should get involved - and this is where conservative sectors exhibit their contradictions: they want the state to get inside your bed to criminalise your behaviour, but when it comes to education or vaccination, they want it not to interfere.
We cannot stay on the defensive. We need to go on the offensive and place secularism and the role of the state on the agenda. And we are forced to do so in a very regressive sub-regional context. Brazil, our biggest neighbour and partner, has just elected a president who is committed to advancing the agenda of its powerful evangelical caucus and who has just appointed to lead the Ministry of Human Rights an evangelic minister who says that women are born to be mothers.
Civic space in Argentina is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.