Legal Abortion in Argentina? A Long Shot Is Suddenly Within Reach


The arrival of an abortion bill in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Argentina’s Congress, is widely seen as a direct outgrowth of a broader women’s rights movement in the country that started in 2015 with a campaign against femicides called “Ni Una Menos,” “Not One Less.”

Hundreds of thousands of women have taken to the streets in recent years to raise awareness about domestic violence and press for stronger laws to protect women.

“The Ni Una Menos movement led to a surge of adherence to the feminist movement and a generalized demand for more equal rights,” said Dora Barrancos, 77, a sociologist at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council, a government agency. “This change is very overwhelming.”

For Andrea Schenk, 28, who joined the abortion rights demonstrators outside Congress, the link between Ni Una Menos and the abortion debate unfolding among lawmakers is undeniable.

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Anti-abortion activists demonstrated in Buenos Aires while lawmakers debated an abortion bill on Tuesday.

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Agustin Marcarian/Reuters

“Fighting against femicides led us to fight against all forms of violence against women — and not letting us decide over our bodies is a form of violence,” she said.

The prospect of legalization became more politically plausible earlier this year, when President Mauricio Macri, who opposes legalizing abortion, freed allied lawmakers to “vote their conscience” on the issue.

If the bill does pass — by no means certain — it would be, in part, because of a coalition of unlikely allies in Argentina’s notoriously divided Congress.

The rise in activism among the country’s women encouraged a few female lawmakers who support legalizing abortion to join forces. They include Victoria Donda, a leftist; Brenda Austin, from Mr. Macri’s center-right Cambiemos coalition; Romina del Plá, from the Workers’ Party; and Mónica Macha, an ally of the center-left former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

“Although we have lots of political differences, we also have a profound agreement on this issue,” Ms. Macha said.

Hundreds of experts and witnesses are scheduled to appear before a special commission that will meet twice a week over the next two months to consider the bill.

Several countries in Latin America allow abortions under limited circumstances, like pregnancy that results from rape or when the mother’s life is threatened. Argentina would become the fourth nation in the region to allow abortion without such restrictions, if the procedure were to be legalized, joining Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and some parts of Mexico.

Proponents of legalization in Argentina say their main motivation is to save lives. Complications from clandestine abortions account for 18 percent of maternal deaths in the country, making it the leading cause, said Mariana Romero, a researcher at the Center for the Study of the State and Society, a nonprofit organization. In 2016 and 2015, at least 98 women died as a result of botched abortions.

“There are between 45,000 to 60,000 hospitalizations derived from clandestine abortions every year,” said Ms. Austin, the lawmaker from the president’s coalition. “Those who are against legal abortion are in favor of clandestine abortions.”

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Mónica Macha is part of a group of female lawmakers from different parties who have formed an alliance to support legalizing abortion.

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Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press

Although women who have been raped or have potentially lethal pregnancy complications are allowed to have abortions in Argentina, few doctors perform the procedure because they are afraid of running afoul of the law.

“In practice those exceptions are not actually honored, and what we see is a near total ban on abortions,” said Salil Shetty, the secretary general of Amnesty International, who visited the country this past week.

Support for legalizing abortion appears to have grown in Argentina in recent years as the Roman Catholic Church has lost clout.

A 2006 survey by the Center for the Study of the State and Society showed 37 percent of Argentines said women should be allowed to have an abortion regardless of the cause, a number that increased to 49 percent in a poll the nonprofit carried out in March.

Another nationwide survey this year by the National University of General San Martín found that about 55 percent of Argentines favor legalizing abortion, although attitudes vary widely by geography.

In the more rural northern provinces, 40 percent are in favor, a sharp contrast with the 67 percent in Buenos Aires.

“There is a very clear correlation: More modern, urban areas are more likely to approve of legalization,” said Lucas Romero, who leads Synopsis, a consultancy.

The high level of support to legalize abortion caught some experts on the issue off-guard.

“The number really surprised me,” said Vanesa Vázquez Laba, head of the gender and sexual diversity department at the National University of General San Martín, referring to the university’s poll. “Evidently, the increased attention to gender violence led the abortion issue to suddenly take a more prominent role in society as a whole.”

Such polling numbers, and the increase in the influence of the abortion rights movement, likely prompted Mr. Macri to assume what amounts to a neutral position as Congress takes up the debate.

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If backers of the measure succeed, Argentina would become the most populous country in Latin America to allow women to terminate pregnancies, in a region where strict abortion laws are the norm.

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Tomas F. Cuesta/Associated Press

“As I’ve said more than once, I’m pro-life,” Mr. Macri said in his annual speech before Congress on March 1. “But I’m also in favor of the mature and responsible debates that we owe ourselves as Argentines.”

Church leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the bill, and they have recently argued that improving sex education in schools is a better strategy for addressing unwanted pregnancies.

The first legislative hearing on the issue this month was unusually calm by the standards of Argentina’s rancorous Congress. Hoping to keep acrimony to a minimum, Daniel Lipovetzky, the government-allied congressman who will lead the debate in committee and is in favor of abortion rights, insisted that all questions to experts be submitted in writing.

Outside Congress, a smaller group of protesters urged lawmakers to listen to the “voice that is never heard,” as they clapped to the sound of a heartbeat and danced to songs celebrating life.

“No one has a right to kill a life,” said Sabrina Soulier, 28. “Murder also exists, but that doesn’t mean we have to legalize it.”

Some 36 lawmakers out of 256 eligible to vote have yet to say where they stand, according to a count by Mr. Lipovetzky, who is optimistic that most of the undecideds will wind up in the yes column.

“Anything could happen,” Mr. Lipovetzky said. “The result will depend on how those undecideds end up voting.”

Many foresee the real battle playing out in the Senate, where rural provinces have more sway. A count by Economía Feminista, which advocates for gender equality, shows only 16 senators have spoken up in favor of legalization, while 27 have expressly said they are against the measure, and 29 have yet to say how they would vote.

But activists are convinced it will be difficult for senators to vote against the bill if it gathers a large margin of support in the lower house.

“No senator is suicidal,” Ms. Donda said. “We’re going to win because we have the most solid arguments in our favor.”

Correction: April 14, 2018

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a researcher at the Center for the Study of the State and Society. She is Mariana Romero, not Marcela.

Correction: April 14, 2018

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a sociologist. She is Dora Barrancos, not Nora.

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‘World Upside Down’: As Trump Pushes Tariffs, Latin America Links Up


Members of Mercosur — the trade bloc that includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay — have jump-started trade negotiations with the European Union, which officials say are closer than ever to a breakthrough after languishing for years.

Canada, which is worried about the potential unraveling of the North American Free Trade Agreement, has begun negotiating a free trade deal with Mercosur.

“There’s never been a better time to diversify,” said François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s minister of international trade. “It would mean opening a market of some 300 million people, a rising middle class, an economic powerhouse in this part of the world.”

Chile hosted the signing of a trade agreement this month that 11 Pacific nations, including Mexico, Peru and Canada, salvaged after the Trump administration walked away from the agreement, originally known the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The Pacific Alliance, another free trade bloc that Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico formed in 2011, is aiming to expand. Its members are negotiating a partnership with Mercosur and are considering admitting Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore as associate members.

For all of the recent advancements, economists and government officials say that significant obstacles stand in the way of substantive commercial integration in the Americas. These include competition among exporters of the same commodities and poor infrastructure that makes cross-border value chains impractical. Despite recent moves to lower trade barriers, protectionist policies remain entrenched in some of the largest countries, including Brazil and Argentina.

And voters in several of the region’s largest economies, including Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, will elect new leaders this year, which could diminish the appetite for free trade and integration in some corners.

But Mr. Trump’s imposition of new tariffs on steel and aluminum this month, and his appearing to relish the prospect of initiating a trade war, makes him an outlier in the region.

“I think the region as a whole — but especially Brazil and Argentina — has learned to recognize that protectionism is a lose-lose strategy,” said Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Countries saw perverse effects of trade barriers play out in their own economies, and will now get a chance to observe what they are likely to do to the most important economy on the planet.”

In 2002, Brazil was among the key naysayers to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the deal intended to span two continents, which was championed by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

The Brazilian president at the time, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist former union leader, argued that the initiative would amount to “annexation” by the United States. But since Mr. da Silva’s successor and ally, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in 2016, the country has embarked on a radically different course.

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Trade Minister Tran Tuan Anh of Vietnam, left, shook hands with Ildefonso Guajardo, Mexico’s economy minister, at the trade pact signing ceremony as Peru’s minister of foreign commerce, Eduardo Ferreyros, looked on.

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Esteban Felix/Associated Press

This month, President Michel Temer’s government issued a blueprint for economic growth that made the case that sustained growth would require lowering tariffs and retraining workers to steer them away from occupations that have become obsolete or less competitive.

The shift comes as Brazil emerges from a crippling, yearslong recession.

In recent months the government has sought to build good will with the Trump administration, including by opening its oil industry to foreign investment.

As Brazilian officials have scrambled to seek exemptions from the steel tariffs, they find themselves, uncharacteristically, preaching the gospel of free trade.

“Our vision is the opposite of what is happening in the United States,” said Marcos Jorge de Lima, Brazil’s minister of industry and foreign trade. “We want more and more trade openings.”

Jorge Arbache, the secretary for international affairs at Brazil’s Planning Ministry, said Mr. Trump’s threat of a trade war could deal a blow to Brazil and Argentina in the short term. But he added that it has the potential to accelerate the region’s economic integration with Asia.

“This recent wave of protectionism has several adverse impacts but it may have a positive impact, not only for Latin America, but on Asia and other regions,” he said.

While Brazil’s economy remains among the world’s most tightly controlled, Mr. Arbache said the government had taken significant steps away from protectionism. For instance, it recently began allowing companies from Mercosur countries and Peru to bid for government procurement contracts, a step that he said “would have been considered unthinkable until recently.”

While government officials across Latin America are largely rueful and contemptuous of the American administration in private, Washington’s traditional allies have sought to make the best of the Trump era, recognizing that foreign investment from, and trade with, the United States remains paramount for economic growth.

Perhaps none has worked harder to charm and cajole the White House than President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, who was among the first Latin American leaders to get an Oval Office meeting. Mr. Trump said during that encounter with Mr. Macri, whom he knew from real estate dealings between the two families, that the two nations would be “great friends, better than ever before.”

Yet nearly a year later, the United States has imposed prohibitive tariffs on biodiesel, which was once Argentina’s chief export to the United States, and a vow by Washington to open its market for Argentine lemons has not been fulfilled.

“The United States has bludgeoned Argentina in trade matters in a way that is utterly inconsistent with the diplomatic approach to the government,” said Benjamin Gedan, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center who worked on policy toward South America in the Obama administration.

Mr. Macri was elected in 2015 after promising to open up Argentina to the world following more than a decade of center-left governments. Now, the viability of his reform agenda, which includes unpopular pension, labor and tax overhauls, hangs on the government’s ability to get the economy on a solid footing and raise wages. The prospect of aluminum and steel tariffs could deal a significant setback to Mr. Macri, who called Mr. Trump this month to plead for an exemption.

“These blows to the Argentine economy are coming at a moment of great fragility, both politically for Mr. Macri and economically for the region as a whole,” Mr. Gedan said.

As they have sought to fend off American tariffs, officials from several South American countries, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile, have impressed upon their counterparts in Washington that the United States has a trade surplus with the region.

But that argument has so far carried little weight in Washington, where, according to analysts and government officials, the Commerce Department is forcefully defending the interests of local industries without the traditional pushback about strategic interests that the State Department has exerted in the past. This stands to benefit China, Latin American leaders say, which in recent years displaced the United States as the top trading partner in Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile.

“I think that with this attitude the United States is leaving a void, and that void may be filled by China,” President Sebastián Piñera of Chile said in a recent interview, adding that he was startled by the messages that the Chinese and American leaders presented at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“The president of the United States was defending protectionism, and the president of China was defending free trade,” Mr. Piñera said. “It felt a little like the world upside down.”

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