Last week’s vote in Argentina’s Senate — which struck down the chance to legalize abortion — was a disappointment for millions of Argentinians and reproductive rights advocates around the world.
But it was also an outcome that is not easily explained away. As we saw in Chile, my native Ireland and Argentina, many Catholic majority countries are opening up about their faith, the ethics of choice and what it means to trust women like never before. Argentina’s unprecedented debate has emboldened a movement for women’s equality and dignity in the country, and the hemisphere, that is unstoppable.
The activism that surged in advance of the vote was moving. Argentina’s campaigners for safe and legal abortion organized an impressive effort to raise public awareness and mobilize thousands to the streets.
They won over the hearts and votes of many politicians who lost their fear of speaking up in support of safe and legal abortion, understanding that it was the right thing do by their people. The campaigners delivered an impressive win in the lower house of Congress, just shortly after Ireland’s landslide popular vote to legalize abortion.
Groups like Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir Argentina lifted up the voices of many Argentinian Catholics who believe that every women should be respected to make her own conscience-based decisions and that the hierarchy should not dictate policy.
The outpouring of support by Argentina’s Catholic illustrates what we know is true — contrary to what both the secular left and the religious right would have you believe Catholics are not a monolith in their views on abortion rights.
Majorities of Catholics in Spain (88 percent), Poland (82 percent), Italy (83 percent), Brazil (81 percent), Mexico (72 percent) and Chile (70 percent) support legal abortion under some or all circumstances. Like in Ireland after the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, Argentina’s Catholics are also coming to grips with the morality of criminalizing abortion.
An estimated 354,000 clandestine abortions are carried out every year in Argentina, and more than 3,000 women have died over the last 25 years as a result of unsafe abortion. A society that respects the dignity of women must ensure that they can seek the care they need without shame and without endangering their lives.
Nevertheless, the vote fell short of the aspirations of the majority. We cannot underestimate the power that religious conservatives wielded over this debate.
The hand of the Catholic hierarchy was felt strongly in the votes of rural Senators who received heavy pressure from local bishops, most notably the bishop of Tucumán, to vote against the law.
Yet as we saw in the infamous case of Belen, it is often women in these rural and poor areas that are most impacted by Argentina’s draconian abortion law.
In El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and across the hemisphere, poor women are hurt by laws that criminalize abortion, since they do not have the resources to circumvent the law. The average income in Argentina’s northernmost regions is one-tenth that of the prosperous south — these communities are remote and isolated, living parallel realities. Rural women need to be empowered to make their own family planning choices safely and to thrive
Nevertheless, it will take deep engagement to make the moral case for why women should have agency over their bodies and their lives in communities rife with deep inequities and in which the Catholic hierarchy is powerful.
As Argentina’s fight for women’s autonomy continues, there are lessons learned from Chile and Ireland’s experience. In both instances, expanding alliances across parties and social sectors was critical to a successful vote. And outreach to rural populations was crucial. Campaigners for safe, legal abortion in Argentina must continue to build on their great work to reach rural women who are no less deserving of their right to choose.
They must continue to make the moral case to these communities for whom religion matters deeply and the ethics of choice must be addressed.
This vote was but one step in an inevitable march for progress — eventually the majority will be heard, but it will take an all-Argentina approach to win the moral argument for women’s autonomy.
This piece was originally published in The Hill.