This article charts the arguments, strategies, and struggles of the abortion rights movement in Argentina, with special attention to the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion. This heterogeneous coalition—widely recognized by its green kerchief—played a key role leading the impressive activist process that culminated with abortion legalization. The law approved by the Argentine Congress in December of 2020 provides for the right to voluntary abortion during the first fourteen weeks of pregnancy and allows for specific legal grounds for abortion after that period (rape or risk to the health or life of the pregnant person). Importantly, before legal reform was achieved, activists had patiently worked to advance the “social decriminalization” of abortion.
For ages she has been on her knees before the altar of duty as imposed by God, by Capitalism, by the State, and by Morality. Today she has awakened from her age-long sleep. She has shaken herself free from the nightmare of the past; she has turned her face towards the light and its proclaiming in a clarion voice that she will no longer be a party to the crime of bringing hapless children into the world only to be ground into dust by the wheel of capitalism and to be torn into shreds in trenches and battlefields.—Emma Goldman, “The Social Aspects of Birth Control” (1916)
Significant time has passed since this memorable work by Emma Goldman, and yet we are still discussing how to make autonomy and freedom over our bodies possible for all women and people with the capacity to gestate. Nevertheless, feminist movements, with new resources and arguments, have created a foundation for confronting the sectors that are most resistant to these human rights. Collective organization appeared as the only way to bring together forces for a struggle that, as seen later, would be tough and complex.
With that conviction, activists for the right to abortion and sexual and reproductive rights in Argentina engaged in diverse strategies to legalize abortion. While the issue was not completely resolved with legislation, a law was an important landmark from which to continue advancing. In Argentina, the Penal Code had criminalized abortion since 1921, while establishing the following exceptions: risk to health or life of the pregnant person or in cases of rape. In those conditions, the decision was placed in the hands of the judges or health care professionals responsible for considering the validity of the grounds for exception. The impossibility of abortion access in most cases gave rise to a very expensive clandestine market with extremely unsafe conditions, putting life itself at risk in cases of social vulnerability. At the same time, silence contributed to making access increasingly more complicated (Rosenberg 2020).
In the 1980s, after a brutal dictatorship, a process of democratic participation began in which women demanded to be heard and taken into account as full citizens. Several initiatives emerged then, both in the state sphere (the Undersecretary of Women was created in 1987) and in social movements (the first Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres [National Women's Meeting] was held in 1986), in which participants began to debate and promote initiatives for abortion access (Bellucci 2014). Multiple actions in the 1980s and 1990s plodded through difficult terrain due to the resistance of governments and powerful conservative groups that attacked any attempts at legislative progress. The banner of human rights, as well as the feminist presence at the Cairo and Beijing United Nations conferences, positioned public health and sexual and reproductive health as basic human rights (Sutton and Vacarezza 2021). Additionally, arduous debates took place during the Argentine constitutional reform process of 1994, when there was a conservative attempt to introduce a clause about life beginning at conception. On the other hand, the law on Sexual Health and Responsible Procreation presented by the women's movement and allied deputies was rejected in the national senate. In this context, the movement reacted by creating Self-Organized Women for the Freedom to Decide (Mujeres Autoconvocadas para Decidir en Libertad, MADEL) (Gutiérrez 2002).
In 2001, in the midst of a currency crisis, social movements erupted that put into question the structures of political power. Popular assemblies were organized in neighborhoods and the whole political system was questioned with the slogan “They all must go.” People debated, with horizontal, pluralist, and democratic criteria, how to build power from below. Among other precedents for this process were the emergence of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Mexico in 1994 and the movements of the unemployed and piqueteros (picketers) in Argentina in the mid-1990s.
This conglomerate of structural conditions and situations, along with the existence of an organized women's movement, gave rise to the project of creating the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion (hereafter the Campaign). In 2003, diverse feminist groups began meeting in the City of Buenos Aires to outline a proposal regarding the struggle for abortion rights, with the plan to bring it to the Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres in Rosario. To avoid obstructions from women from religious groups who made dialogue impossible, they decided to organize a workshop at the Encuentro with a focus on “strategies” for legalization, only inviting participants involved in organizing for the right to abortion. That Encuentro, a key moment in the initial stages of the Campaign due to its diverse and national character, closed its traditional march with the banner and green kerchiefs later associated with the Campaign. How did the kerchief arise? In a meeting in the United Nations, several activists started to think about an emblem that would identify the Campaign. The idea of the kerchief paralleled the white kerchief used by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo—mothers of those disappeared by the dictatorship—and connected the issue with the human rights imaginary. The color was chosen by chance and the initial inscription varied until the Campaign's slogan took shape, synthesizing a comprehensive perspective: “Sex education for choice, contraception to prevent abortion, legal abortion to prevent death.”
A new meeting took place during the 2004 Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres in the city of Mendoza and then another with a group of activists from the city of Córdoba. Organizers decided to formally introduce the Campaign in the City of Buenos Aires, in front of the National Congress building on May 28, 2005. Banners were hung up and down the side street adjacent to Congress, a stage was set up, and, among other activities, the well-known actress Cristina Banegas read out the Campaign's foundational principles. There, Campaign activists began to experiment with diverse organizational forms that were articulated over time and through multiple actions.
The Campaign in Action: Organizational Structure, Presentation of Bills, and Expansion
The Campaign emerged with an impressive objective: to legalize abortion. Legalization referred to universal, safe, and free access in the whole health care system: public, private, and employment-based health insurance. It organized in different regions of the country, carrying out activities according to local possibilities as well as following national guidelines. This format began small and later expanded to different localities.
The Campaign is characterized by being plural, diverse, federal, intersectional, intergenerational, and democratic. Those who joined the Campaign needed to be in agreement with the motto, establish contacts in each locality, and start to participate. Each regional chapter elected an activist who became part of the National Articulation, the body responsible for implementing the guidelines collectively formulated in the Campaign's annual plenary meetings.
First, a committee was formed that drafted a bill that was introduced for the first time in 2007. That bill, like so many others, was not debated in Congress. According to the rules of the Argentine parliament, if two years pass without parliamentary debate, bills lose legislative status. The systematic rejection of the bills had various effects. On one hand, it became necessary to insist on introducing a bill every two years. On the other hand, it forced activists to imagine actions and strategies that would improve public perception of the issue in society as a whole—what is referred to as “social decriminalization of abortion.” Similarly, collective strategies were proposed to update the bills according to new political debates and scientific advances. For example, the appearance of misoprostol and mifepristone, as a technology that was appropriated by activists, changed the strategies of action and abortion access (Gutiérrez 2021a).
The bill that was introduced in 2018 and debated for the first time on the parliamentary floor, emerged through democratic and participatory mechanisms. The involvement of the Campaign in drafting the bill was key to generating a sense of investment that guaranteed participation during the debate.
Failures and Openings of New Proposals: Social Decriminalization of Abortion
Before 2018, the bill had been presented six times without ever being debated in Congress. Therefore, it was important to think about alternative strategies in the Campaign's national plenaries, given the exhaustion of the initial strategy that, nonetheless, would not be abandoned.
Thus, in 2012, Socorristas en Red (Feministas que Abortamos) (Network of First Responders, Feminists who Abort) was founded through the organization of activists who provide accompaniment to those who choose to undergo abortions with medication. The Socorristas built a national network across the country, adjusting their strategies of intervention. They developed relationships with supportive health care professionals in each place, turning to them not only in cases of emergency but also for follow-up care. It is an accompaniment filled with love that not only allows for addressing the medical aspects of abortion but is also mindful of the overall subjective experience involved in an abortion decision (Keefe-Oates 2021).
In 2014, the Network of Healthcare Professionals for the Right to Choice (Red de Profesionales de la Salud por el Derecho a Decidir) emerged, bringing together workers from the public health care system across the country. All of its members are trained in different aspects of abortion and provide services to pregnant people under the grounds for abortion permitted by the law.
The campaign's comprehensive slogan—”Sexual education for choice, contraception to prevent abortion, legal abortion to prevent death”—also led supportive teachers to organize the National Network of Teachers for the Right to Abortion (Red Nacional de Docentes por el Derecho al Aborto), in order to educate themselves and develop arguments and strategies to implement the already existing Comprehensive Sex Education Law. They organized in different ways: holding trainings, working with students in the classroom, and working with school administrators, among other strategies. This approach encouraged the enormous involvement and participation of young people, a key element in the emergence of the Green Tide (the informal name given to the current mass movement for abortion rights).
The Campaign also found it necessary to organize a parliamentary lobbying committee that focused on building relationships with legislators in the National Congress. This process provided activists with exhaustive information about the internal operation of parliament and the logics of lobbying, and it established the Campaign as a privileged interlocutor with Congress members. This committee always played a key role, but even more so in the congressional debates of 2018 and 2020 (Gutiérrez 2021b).
As the Campaign grew—and its actions, geographic reach, and strategies increased—it also became necessary to create a Communications committee. This committee was organized at the national level, with a coordinating body, regional sections, and groups that managed different networks, the press, and media. A team of designers worked on content, including hashtags, and designing the logo, flyers, and other elements to create its own clearly identifiable aesthetic.
Meanwhile, the different regional sections organized events and meetings in universities. That experience included open-to-the-public courses on abortion rights, which reached both the university population as well as the general population. Those were important connections to society, transmitting content in areas of health, law, education, art, and communication, among others. More than twenty national universities, their schools of medicine, psychology, social sciences, arts, and others, created their own open courses. In 2019, a national meeting was held, in which RUDA, the Network of Public University Courses on Comprehensive Sex Education and the Right to Abortion (Red de Cátedras en Universidades Públicas Nacionales sobre Educación Sexual Integral y Derecho al Aborto) was founded, bringing together those courses on abortion and others related to sexual and reproductive rights and comprehensive sex education.
In 2019, the Collective of Sex-Gender-Political Dissidents (Colectiva de Disidencias Sexogeneropolíticas) was created, including LGBTQI+ activists who had participated in the Campaign since its founding. While that articulation had moments of political tension, one key result was the inclusion of the category of “gestating person” in the bill, which takes into account abortion rights for people who are not women. This was unprecedented and was the result of the persistent action of LGBTQI+ groups within the Campaign and the debates encouraged in that space. This collective approached abortion rights as a corporeal politics linked to bodily autonomy and the freedom to decide one's life projects. Their ideas were in synergy with the national legislative plexus, such as the Marriage Equality Law and the Gender Equality Law.
All of these groups’ actions began to chip away at the hegemonic belief that supported the illegality of abortion and therefore its clandestine dimension in places where the state-market-society triad played a significant role. This process of “social decriminalization of abortion” took the issue out of the closet and put it not only on the public policy agenda but also in the center of social debate. The green kerchief as a badge of belonging permeated different collectives and spaces of social life. This was a slow and persistent path toward the formation of the Green Tide that took on a national, regional, and global character.
2018: A Powerful Inflection Point
At the beginning of 2018, the US MeToo movement had an impact on the Argentine media, which began to host conversations about harassment and abuse in the workplace. Additionally, feminist compañeras (fellow activists) talked about the need to debate the issue of abortion as a pressing issue. There was also the precedent of the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement against gender-based violence in Argentina. The demand was echoed in the media and quickly expanded to the national level with a large presence of compañeras from the Campaign. The work spearheaded by the Communications committee started to be seen and had a major effect across society. In parallel, a pañuelazo (kerchief-waving protest) was organized in front of the Congress building calling for legislators to bring the bill presented by the Campaign the previous year to the floor. The massive turnout at the protest sped up the process. On March 1, at the beginning of the ordinary sessions of the National Congress, President Mauricio Macri greenlighted a debate on the issue.
The Campaign introduced a new bill on March 6 and debate began in congressional committees, all of them gathered in a single hearing space. Informational sessions were held in Congress for three months, including more than seven hundred presentations, both in favor and against. In parallel, activists organized the so-called Green Tuesdays in front of the Congress building. Art collectives and multiple organizations participated in these spaces, taking the stage over the course of the four hours that the informational sessions lasted. These events granted a social body to the debate and put the issue in public space with an intensity that had never been seen before.
This paved the way for June 13, when the bill was debated in the Chamber of Deputies, and approved by the lower chamber the following day. The all-night vigil, the organization of the activist space, the care practiced there, and the activities carried out outside Congress gave a festive tone to the debate. These events also had an enormous online impact, adding a very large audience that way. We were undoubtedly in the presence of a national debate of substantive importance due to the mobilization of the Green Tide, as well as the conservative groups that expressed themselves with sky-blue kerchiefs and the slogan “let's save both lives.”
At the same time, the organization of the group Las Sororas [The Sisterly], made up of legislators from across the political spectrum, was key. Its political transversality granted the demand a strong consistency and broad range, as did the intense work within each political party.
The approval of the bill in the lower chamber was celebrated with major euphoria, and organizers began putting together a strategy for the Senate Chamber. There the situation was more complex: it is a more conservative legislative body, corresponding to the political alignments of leaders from the provinces, in which groups against abortion rights had considerable reach. In effect, the opposition organized strategically: the street was taken over by Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal groups, and the Catholic Church hierarchy applied pressure on political leaders. In this context, the vote was negative, although it was accompanied by an enormous vigil by the Green Tide that made it clear that activists were not giving up.
Organizers continued holding multiple actions in different spaces. The bill was revised and reformulated and introduced in the Chamber of Deputies again on May 28, 2019. Society was alert to all the possible maneuvers and a more contentious debate was expected. On the other hand, it was an election year, which always puts all other issues on a secondary plane. During the electoral campaign, the presidential candidate for Frente de Todos (Front for All), Dr. Alberto Fernández, proposed that the Executive branch of government introduce an abortion bill. On winning the elections and assuming power on December 10, 2019, he began that work but, during the process, the COVID-19 pandemic started and Preventative Social Isolation was declared on March 20, 2020.
2020: The Pandemic and the New Bill
The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented situation for activism. Virtual activities were developed to maintain the spirit of 2018, and toward the end of the year a few street performances were held to apply pressure in support of legalization. In December, the government introduced its bill for the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy Law, simultaneously with the Comprehensive Attention and Healthcare during Pregnancy and Early Childhood Law, known as the “1000 days plan.” This law seeks to protect, strengthen, and accompany the comprehensive health of gestating people and children during their first three years of life. The debate was simplified because the battery of arguments discussed in 2018 were considered to have already been presented. At the same time, street activism had shifted to virtual spaces: actions continued, the demand remained unscathed, and the attack of fundamentalist/conservative groups and those opposed to the pandemic health care measures took to the streets and social media in an attack that seemed to know no boundaries. Conservative groups intensified their efforts, but the work carried out inside parliament had a favorable result for the law's approval. Legalization was celebrated on the streets on December 30, 2020, by the Green Tide in the context of a very delicate health situation.
The arguments deployed in support of legalization in the debates in 2018 and 2020 revolved around women's health, the conditions of the health care system, and access to safe abortion in the medical system, considering comprehensive health care a human right. The conditions of social inequity were a key factor, as well as the freedom and autonomy to decide. Scientific arguments in the field of health and the law were privileged over the notion of autonomy that, while not abandoned, aroused the least amount of social support.
The arguments against legalization pivoted around the argument that there were other more significant women's health matters than abortion, that so-called “post-abortion” syndrome was very serious for women, and that abortion was not a central issue amid an economic crisis aggravated by the pandemic. From a legal perspective, they insisted that the law was unconstitutional because, they argued, legalization would go against the San José de Costa Rica Pact that was part of Argentina's constitutional text. Their central argument was that life begins at conception and their slogan “let's save both lives” hinged on preventing pregnancies through Comprehensive Sexual Education, a policy that they had rejected for years and continued to do so (Vaggione and Morán Faúndes 2021).
The law that was finally passed in Congress—and promoted by the Executive Branch—allows access to voluntary abortion up to fourteen weeks of pregnancy for women and all gestating persons—introducing trans people as subjects of the law. After that period, the grounds previously allowing for abortion, those related to comprehensive health and rape, still stand. Contrary to the Campaign's bill, the law allows for conscientious objection, although it must be personal and not institutional.
All of these issues are put up for debate in the current implementation process, in which there have been judicial actions against the law, as well as resistance from health care providers. Access to legal abortion is unequal among the provinces and regions. The Directorate of Sexual Health of the National Ministry of Health supplies misoprostol and trains professionals, among other things. However, the cultural roots of the obstructions require other time frames and intense social monitoring by the Campaign.
The issues denounced by Emma Goldman in this article's epigraph continue to be problems in contemporary societies. After many years of struggle for abortion rights, the Argentine case had a favorable outcome for women and people with the capacity to gestate, although difficulties remain during the implementation of the new abortion law.
A Campaign organized under a concise and powerful slogan revealed crucial issues related to the abortion question. Considering the clandestine nature of abortion as a “debt of democracy” connected this matter to other struggles. It also placed the issue of democracy—understood as a node in which the state, the market, and society are articulated—at the center of abortion rights activism. The connection to democracy is very clear in the case of abortion, as it involves the negation of women's place in the body politic and of their condition as full citizens. The slogan situated the demand in the field of civil and human rights and framed it within the political and parliamentary logics of the liberal republican model. It is a matter of access to a very personal right that focuses on the decision-making capacity and freedom of women and people with the capacity to gestate. It decenters, to a certain extent, the “destiny” of those who may become pregnant from the social function as mothers (biopolitics) and places it in the bodies of and decisions as citizens in a legally constituted democracy.
However, the notions of freedom and autonomy—liberal and constitutive of demands to democracies—are transformed through a process of political construction and struggle. They become a collective right to the needs, choices, and desires of women and people with the capacity to gestate.
The Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy Law (Ley de Interrupción Voluntaria del Embarazo, IVE) partially repairs this condition of exclusion but, from an intersectional perspective, significant work remains necessary in its implementation, which requires a social commitment in line with multiple and still unfinished demands. The true implementation of the IVE Law will be a reality when there is effective reproductive justice and Emma Goldman's aspirations form part of the everyday life of women and people with the capacity to gestate.