Argentina’s Decades-Long Fight to Legalize Abortion Ends in Victory

Argentina’s Decades-Long Fight to Legalize Abortion Ends in Victory

On Tuesday evening, Argentina was filled with green: green graffiti proclaiming “Children, Not Mothers,” green banners exclaiming “It Will Be Law,” and green bandanas reading “National Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion.” Teenagers and grown women alike tied the green handkerchiefs of the campaign to legalize abortion around their necks to signal their devotion to the cause as they poured out into the streets of more than 120 cities. Together, they stood vigil for nearly 12 hours as the Argentine Senate debated a bill to legalize abortion.

Just after 4 am on Wednesday, as hundreds of thousands waited on the steps of the Palace of the Argentine National Congress, the news came in: With 38 votes in favor, 29 opposed, and 1 abstention, abortion was legalized. Crowds cheered and sobbed with relief. On social media, the once popular hashtag #SeráLey (#ItWillBeLaw) was replaced with #EsLey (#ItIsLaw). Feminists, in not only Argentina but also other Latin American countries like Ecuador and Mexico, promised each other that “Latin America will be entirely feminist.”

Before this, the only Latin American regions guaranteeing abortion in the first trimester for any reason were Uruguay, Cuba, and two Mexican states. Elsewhere, such as in Chile and Peru, abortion is available in specific circumstances, including rape, incest, fetal deformity, or risk to the mother’s health—or, as in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, completely banned. This is why Argentina’s abortion debate made international headlines in 2018 when millions of feminists waited in the streets for a Senate vote after legislators in the lower house of Congress approved a bill to legalize abortion. Although the bill narrowly failed in the Senate, the campaign brought a once-taboo topic out into the open and sparked a country- and continent-wide movement to legalize abortion nicknamed “the green wave.”

That next year, when Argentina’s presidential elections rolled around, Peronist candidate Alberto Fernández and his running mate, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, knew they would have to embrace the green wave in order to win the youth vote. When Fernández took office in December 2019, he promised to fight for the law.

The green wave, however, did not begin in 2018 with the pibas, or kids, who popularized the pro-choice movement. Or even in 2005, when the feminist National Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion submitted its first bill to legalize abortion to Argentina’s Congress. It began sometime in the late 1970s, when the “grandmothers” of the green wave were living in exile across Europe, waiting out Argentina’s military dictatorship and organizing with French, Italian, US, and other Latin American feminists as part of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement.

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One of those grandmothers was Dora Coledesky, a Trotskyist labor organizer and lawyer born in Buenos Aires in 1928, but raised in the conservative northern city of Tucumán. When Argentina’s Dirty War broke out in 1976, Coledesky and her husband, like many leftists, fled the country. Landing in France, which had legalized abortion the year prior, she joined the Feminist Revolutionary League, where she organized with Europeans as well as other exiled Latin Americans from Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil. When Argentina’s military dictatorship ended in 1984, Coledesky and her feminist colleagues started to return—eager to organize for change in their own country. Coledesky herself began by joining the women who had stayed in Argentina through the dictatorship—like Magui Bellotti and Marta Fontela, who had formed a group in 1982 called ATEM 25 de noviembre, or the Association of Women’s Work and Study, which met annually on November 25.

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