Sex education to decide. Contraceptives to avoid abortion. Legal abortion to avoid death.

Features and Opinions Editor Liz Hession speaks with Dr. Nuala Finnegan (Head of Department of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American Studies) and Dr. Céire Broderick, (Department of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American Studies) about the recent defeat of the Argentinian Abortion Bill, and how various campaigns for women’s rights, particularly the movement against gender violence, have intersected over the last half-century.

An air of celebration and relief rippled across Ireland on the 25th of May. Having campaigned for a Yes vote in the recent Referendum, argued, fought, cried, laughed, and shouted with my fellow Irish citizens, I was exhausted. After the emotional turmoil we all experienced throughout the campaign, the Irish summer seemed sticky, still, and quiet.

During that Summer, others around the world continued the fight for recognition of their bodily autonomy. On the 8th of August, the Argentinian campaigners did not experience that same cry of relief, certainly not those who campaigned for pro-choice legislation, following the Senate’s rejection of a proposed Bill to legalise abortion up to 14 weeks.

The Bill had already passed through the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate’s lower house, giving preliminary approval with 129 votes in favour, 125 against. It then passed through to the Senate and was defeated 38-31.

I spoke to Dr. Nuala Finnegan, and Dr. Céire Broderick, both lecturers in UCC’s Department of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American Studies, for an insight into the Argentinian case, as well as reproductive rights campaigns across Latin America.

At a time when we begin to look back on the colossal moment that was the 8th Amendment Referendum, Dr. Finnegan and Dr. Broderick discussed how Latin American culture has processed its own abortion question, and how various campaigns for women’s rights, particularly the movement against gender violence, have intersected over the last half-century.

Why did one nation win, and another lose? When I asked Dr. Finnegan and Dr. Broderick this question, Dr. Finnegan acknowledged that perhaps the more significant question was not why the Bill failed, rather “the surprise was that it even got through the lower house. The shock was incredible, no one could believe it”.

Dr. Broderick took me through the law itself and what it proposed – the genesis of the legislation was Free, Safe and Legal. While that genesis is easily recognisable within the Irish context, the Repeal vote only actualised a small facet of that concept. Up to 12 weeks, abortion in Ireland is now legal without limitation, at-least in theory, but had our government been asked to bring in the same legislation as the Argentinian Senate debated on, the outcome would likely have been different.

But the outcome was different, the political process was different, and the movement was different. The rhetoric that structured the Irish movement to Repeal the 8th Amendment may not have worked in the Argentinian case, for various reasons. In Ireland, people worked to change the minds of the voting population in an era when Irish society was looking internally, questioning its history, uncovering the traumas and abuses, and the emotive discourse surrounding the movement for bodily autonomy mirrored that reflection. In Argentina, the task was not necessarily the same.

The law proposed a change to Argentina’s criminal code, under which abortion is illegal except when the life of the mother is endangered, or if the pregnancy comes from a rape or an attack committed on a mentally impaired woman – the conditions termed to be a ‘therapeutic abortion’.  

The bill would have legalised abortion up to 14 weeks, without exception, provided free abortion in public and private hospitals, mandated a waiting period of five days to secure an abortion, and required counselling and medical treatment before and after the procedure – the consensus as to why the Bill failed, was that it was just too much.

Legalisation, Dr. Broderick explained, is a very different context to the question of decriminalisation, as structures would need to be put in place to support that legislation – the question of the cost to the State was a primary difficulty. Some of the members who voted against the Bill asserted that if the Bill proposed decriminalisation, their vote may have been different, Dr Broderick further pointed.

Adolescent women, between the ages of 13-16, would have the right to choose to have an abortion should they wish; members of the Senate, again, had trouble comprehending how “a woman who was too young to purchase alcohol, could choose to make such a drastic life decision”, Dr. Broderick added.

Much the same as the Irish case, Dr. Broderick asserted that “this is something that is happening off the radar. There were a certain amount of people who were saying, ‘well, if this is happening anyway, let’s remove the possibility of these people – the women, or those providing the abortion – being prosecuted’”.

A primary issue of the Bill, and the debate surrounding reproductive rights legislation in Latin America, is the issue of conscientious objection, which was included in the text of the Bill and provided a key bargaining tool to conservatives. However, the issue has posed many difficulties in the Chilean context, and across the continent – Dr Broderick explained that, due to conscientious objection, “many centres which could provide abortions don’t.”

Considering the recent Papal visit to Ireland, I questioned the extent to which Argentina being the pontiff’s home nation would affect political discourse on abortion, having compared the act to the “white glove” of Nazi eugenics.

Comparing the anti-choice movement in Ireland to the Argentinian case, Dr Finnegan asserted: “I think the pro-life movement there is certainly very predicated, probably much more than it was here, around religious ideals.” However, Dr Finnegan added, “Catholicism is less structurally interconnected in many Latin American societies than it is in Ireland – for example, in Mexico, there’s complete separation of church and state.”

The intersectionality of various women’s rights  movements in Latin America has been key to its vibrance. In a large capacity, the movement to address gender-based violence, such as #NiUnaMenos (‘Not One [Woman] Less’), galvanised abortion rights movements across the continent. Dr Finnegan acknowledged the key intersectionality existing across Latin America:

“In general, women’s rights movements are much more intersectional in Latin America then they are here. Women’s activism historically in Latin America has always been intersectional – the recent obsession with intersectionality is bizarre outside of the First World, [because] it’s always been intersectional. Primarily, pro-choice campaigns came from the movement that fights violence against women – reproductive rights are added on to that. It is on the agenda, but not seriously in most countries, whereas violence against women is on the agenda. Reproductive rights have rarely been the priority.”

That key intersection has not gone without criticism. Dr Broderick explained that some of the original members of the Ni Una Menos, particularly mothers of young women who have been murdered, have asserted that ‘[abortion] is not the original issue’ – “they would worry that Free Safe Legal would detract from the original focus, and in many ways, rather the larger issue”.

According to UN Women, among the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world, 14 are from Latin America and the Caribbean, with many deaths remaining unaccounted for. In some countries, the domestic violence rates are as high as 50% – violence is normalized to a shocking degree.

Naturally, the movement against gender-based violence itself is an intersection of many anti-choice campaigners, too. Dr Finnegan explained that “those tensions are always replicated between various grass-roots movements, particularly mothers’ movements, such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which of course have a very long history in Argentina and Latin America; [they] fight primarily for justice for their daughters who have been murdered. That clashes with what they see as middle-class concerns with reproductive rights, a European struggle.”

The movement for reproductive rights has intersected with a movement toward better sex education and was a prominent element of the Argentine pro-choice campaign, Dr Finnegan added. The case for sex education differs broadly across different regions, rural and urban areas, and class divides. In Argentina, a recent law was passed to guarantee the right to sex education in all schools, public and private, Dr Finnegan explained. Dr Broderick added, comparatively, that Chile, on which a significant part of her academic research focuses, has the worst level of sex education across the continent.

Sex education, and the availability of contraception are vital elements of the discourse surrounding reproductive rights in Latin America. The slogan which adorns the trademark green scarves of the pro-choice movement is “sex education to decide, contraception to avoid abortion, and abortion to avoid death”, Dr. Broderick added, capturing the essence of the movement. Indeed, in the Argentinian context, complications related to ‘back-street’ abortions are the main cause of death among pregnant women.

The fight for reproductive rights in Latin America has not slowed its momentum since the failure of the Argentine Bill. The immediate response following the agony of its defeat was an urgent demand to keep fighting. While Ireland focused on the victims of the 8th Amendment to strengthen its pro-choice appeal through entities such as ‘In Her Shoes’, the Argentinian focus was less-so on the emotive cases, relying more on mass-demonstrations to promote the cause, edging on a near-militant presence, reflecting the decades of state violence that came to shape Latin American society – “that’s where you get the symbolic power,” Dr Finnegan noted.

Dr. Broderick, looking at recent academic scholarship, acknowledged that “these pro-choice movements are coming through now because these women have been educated in a post-dictatorship context. The feminist rhetoric is coming through very strongly in their social education and has been characterised by that revolutionary tradition.”

“There’s a very deeply embedded tradition of revolutionary discourse in Latin America generally”, Dr Finnegan added. “In some ways, they are politically formed in a very different way. It never ceases to amaze me how theoretically sophisticated the activists in Latin America are in questions of feminism and women’s rights.”

It is difficult to say what could have been altered in the text of the Argentine Bill for it to have met a different fate, but it is a certainty that the battle will continue.