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Activists In Argentina Fight For Access To Legal Abortion


A historic change in Argentina may be at hand. Since the 1920s, abortion has been illegal there. Women can only seek one in the predominantly Catholic country in cases of rape or if the mother's life is at risk. But statistics suggest that hundreds of thousands of often unsafe, illegal abortions take place every year. And botched abortions are the leading cause of maternal death there. Last week, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Buenos Aires and other cities, calling for abortion to be legalized as the political winds there have shifted. To tell us more, we have Natalie Alcoba in Buenos Aires on the line. She reported on the demonstrations for Al-Jazeera. Welcome.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. This has been a long fight for these activists. The latest attempt to legalize abortion got close in 2018, but it ultimately failed in the Senate. You report that activists are more optimistic now. Why?

ALCOBA: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. So last week was a return to the streets for the campaign to legalize abortion in Argentina. The last time we saw the feminist movement come out in these kinds of numbers was in May of last year when they actually did present a new project to legalize abortion in the first 14 weeks. It was never debated last year because it was an election year. And I guess that is the crucial piece that has changed since 2018 because now Argentina has a president, Alberto Fernandez, who is pro-legalization, pro-decriminalizing abortion and is drafting a bill to present to the Congress.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you reported on the demonstrations. What were the women on the streets there telling you about why they're out? And did you hear any personal stories?

ALCOBA: Yeah. So, I mean, I was out last year when they presented their project and then again last week. You know, I talked to mothers who were there with their daughters, some very young. I know one mother who's there with her 5-year-old. Last year, when I was out at one of the demonstrations, I spoke to a teenager who talked about how after the debate in 2018, you know, she recalled this one instance when she was watching television with her mom, and it was a news item about the question of legalizing abortion. And following that item, her mother kind of opened up to her and confided that when she was a teenager, she had sought an illegal abortion. And she had felt alone and didn't know who to turn to for help.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say abortion in Argentina is not only illegal, but it can lead to prison time, right?

ALCOBA: That's correct. Yeah, yeah. It comes with a sentence of between one and three years. I mean, the reality is that it is seldom - at this stage, it is seldom prosecuted. And I think that's one of the main reasons why the president, Alberto Fernandez, talks about the hypocrisy that exists here in Argentina, this idea that two tiers - two classes of women, right? - that if you're wealthy, you can access something that is safe. And if you're not, then you can't. And that really drives his own position on legalizing it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the main groups opposing legalization is, of course, the Catholic Church. This is the home country, after all, of Pope Francis, who personally got involved in the debate last time. What has the religious community and others who oppose abortion been saying this time?

ALCOBA: Yes, I think we are hearing that same message. And I think that the influence of the Catholic Church is the main reason why this will be a stiff debate. It seems to me at least that they're taking an even more visible role. Like, for example, that the church has called a special mass for March 8, which is International Women's Day, in a basilica in the city of Lujan. It's a mass that is in defense of both lives - that's the terminology that they use - and that really is meant to show, you know, the opposition to abortion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, there's still a lot of opposition in the Senate to this, which means this bill might not pass yet again. I mean, what are the expectations at this point?

ALCOBA: Yeah, so I think that the gap between the yes and the no side in the Senate has shrunk. But it does appear to tilt no at the moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Natalie Alcoba is a reporter in Buenos Aires. Thank you so much.

ALCOBA: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.