On Abortion and Politics: Argentina’s New Clothes

Image: Aljazeera

In June 2018, the streets of Argentina echoed the sound of a common scream: the Emperor has no clothes.

Some may remember Andersen’s famous tale, in which two con-men trick an Emperor into thinking that his clothes are invisible to the eyes of stupid people. In fear of appearing foolish, nobody dares tell the monarch that he is naked. That is, until a child finally blurts out what everyone was thinking: that the Emperor was wearing no clothes at all. The resemblance between this tale and Argentina’s position on the topic of abortion was first noted by Mario Pecheny in 2006. This issue had long been surrounded in an unruffled political silence: “it is necessary”, he said, “that somebody dares speak first, so that every person that thought they were alone in seeing the invisible also speaks up”. 

Paradoxically, the practice is all but new. Studies point out that the slow demographic growth of hunter-gatherer societies in prehistoric times could be attributed to techniques of natality control, which included abortion. Such practices were also employed by midwives in the greco-roman world, as Plato himself accounted in his dialogues. During the mid-19th century, some estimates even put abortion rates in the United States at around 20% to 25% of all pregnancies. It was not until that same century that abortion started being criminalized, first in common law countries and then in their civil law counterparts. While many States in the “Global North” have since lifted some of their restrictions on the practice, Latin America has mostly kept its ban. The only notable exception to this is Cuba, where abortions have been free and legal since 1965.

However, until recently, abortion in Latin America had not only been outlawed: it had been erased from the political debate altogether. In 2003, Cristina Fernández (then first lady) was questioned on the topic by a french lawyer. “Societies have their times”, she answered, “and I don’t think that Argentina is ready for that”. This statement echoes the position shared until recently by most of the country’s political class, a cross-party consensus that “now is not the time” to talk about it. But why was abortion such a difficult topic to address politically? And most importantly, what change, if any, allowed the issue to be brought to the forefront of the political debate in 2018?

The invisibilization of abortion has a cultural root: the topic is difficult to address because it is opposed to the patriarchal and predominantly-catholic structure of Argentinean society. Both the defense of marriage and the reprobation of abortion, dominant themes of conservative “family values”, can be interpreted as an attempt to enforce an obligation for women to procreate. The idea of a naturally-occurring “maternal instinct” has been disproved by anthropological and historical analyses of the evolution and variety of attitudes towards motherhood (see, specifically, Paola Tabet’s essay on “Natural Fertility and Forced Reproduction”). However, the patriarchal narrative perpetrated by the Catholic Church insists on presenting childbearing as the epitome of women’s personal realization. Conservative outrage at the topic of abortion reflects a condemnation of anything which may put into question a woman’s obligation to become a mother. Women’s reproductive capacity has long been used to justify their subordination to men: supposedly, as their dedication to childbearing makes them weak, it is only normal that they are dominated by “stronger” males. It is painfully obvious how this patriarchal defense of forced maternity, particularly supported by the Catholic Church, reinforces the oppression of women.

The second reason for its invisibilization is political. It is rooted, firstly, in the definition of what topics are worthy of public debate. For Mario Pecheny, the absence of abortion in political discussions is partly due to its association with women, and thus with the private sphere. Masculinity is traditionally associated with the public domain, Aristotle’s polis, as opposed to the home, oikos, which is a woman’s realm. This symbolic association was only questioned very recently, as women entered the job market in competition with men (it is important to note that women of lower socioeconomic classes had always worked, although their occupations were often specifically feminine). Abortion, as a “women’s issue”, is therefore often kept private and hidden. This generates an ambivalent situation. While society publicly condemns abortion, it also tacitly acknowledges its existence and practice. The same duality is found in the attitude of official authorities: while abortion is prohibited and legally punishable, this punitive law is seldom enforced. It is particularly interesting to observe what this ambivalence reveals on what abortion is considered: while its detractors assimilate it with murder, no one seems to condemn it with the same severity as they would the murder of an already-born human. This duality is, ironically, also reflected in the personal hypocrisy of some politicians. On September 16th 1999, as Carlos Menem was running for presidential reelection after an adamant campaign against abortion, his ex-wife publicly admitted to having terminated a pregnancy with her then-husband’s approval. A second aspect of this political reason, and perhaps the most evident one, is rooted in the strategic decisions to which political parties are drawn. The progressive abandon of identitary political allegiances led to the creation of catch-all parties, and these parties abandoned strong ideological convictions in favour of more consensual positions, in hopes to attract a larger range of voters. In a country where 66% of the population identifies as Catholic, the defense of abortion was often seen as political suicide, and even used as a strategy to discredit political opponents.

In spite of these obstacles, the legalization of abortion became the most important issue of the political and public debates this year. I believe that this was not the result of a radical change, but rather the consequence of a process that had been slowly brewing since the late nineties: the articulation of the feminist movement with other social demands to create a feminist people. A common identity linked the feminist movement to other social mobilizations: those of female strikers, field workers and indigenous nations, amongst others. While these movements carry heterogeneous demands, they were united by a discursive opposition to a common adversary: the forces that carry traditional and patriarchal values in Argentinean society.

This articulation was a progressive process. In Argentina, the topic of abortion was first introduced to the public sphere by feminist movements, which in the late nineteen eighties brought it to the table in women-centered spaces, and particularly in National Women’s Encounters. Its first notable mention in the mainstream political debate was only made in 1994, when then-president Carlos Menem attempted to reform the country’s Constitution to protect the lives of “unborn children”. As a response, a hundred different political and social organizations created the collective Mujeres Autoconvocadas para Decidir en Libertad (MADEL, or Self-organized Women to Decide in Liberty). This organization and its victory in preventing the Constitutional change was one of the first manifestations of the union of social struggles around the spearhead of abortion. The eighteenth National Women’s Encounter, organized in August of 2003 in the city of Rosario, then marked a tipping point. For the first time, the debate was not centered around whether abortion had to be legalized. Rather, the issue became how to legalize the practice, a strategy to silence the catholic women who were regularly send to infiltrate and hijack the debates. The first day of this encounter ended with an open assembly. Pointing to the hundreds of women pouring out of the Faculty of Economics, deafened by the chants of “legal abortion to not die, birth control to not abort”, militant Olga Cristiano said to her companions: “Do you realize what is happening?” The all-time feminists like Olga had been joined by the “piqueteras” (female-strikers), the jobless women, the factory workers. Most of them were participating for the first time.

Drawing on this newly found support, the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion was created on the 14th of May, 2005. At the time, it federated 70 organizations. Today, they are more than 500, and carry demands that are social, political, feminist, related to human rights and to many other topics. This alliance gave the feminist movement the traction it needed to challenge the status quo and enter the counter-hegemonic field. Abortion became the spearhead of a wider fight for the full citizenship of women, forcing the conversation, but also in a sense making the topic an empty signifier to catalyze broader demands. Abortion became a demand to signify all others, by representing the alliance and articulation of struggles such as laicism, plurality and citizenship under a common goal.

In Argentina, the Emperors’ nudity was not denounced by a conventional political actor. The country’s patriarchal society, coupled with electoral logics that made the issue politically risky, kept the topic of abortion out of public debate. It was the federation of many frustrated social demands that ultimately led to the massive mobilization towards the topic, imposing it to the political agenda. Today, the debate still stands the trial of Argentina’s conservative society: but, at least, the Emperor is nude. 

Malena REALI

Malena is a third year political sciences student at Sciences Po Paris, currently studying as an affiliate at University College London.

Her particular interests of study and research include political theory, feminism and latin american studies.


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Image: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/03/argentina-women-groups-optimistic-legalising-abortion-180309135053069.html