For some colors, we have an immediate and powerful connection to a cause. A crowd of people donning black clothes will likely make you think of Black Lives Matter; if they’re wearing pink you’re going to assume a Planned Parenthood function, and this weekend the rainbow of colors will highlight the Pride march in Portland. In Argentina, two colors will have this same effect: bright green, to advocate for legal abortion, and baby blue to “march for life.”
I hadn’t spent a day in a city bigger than Portland until I went abroad to Buenos Aires in September of 2017. One of the first things that struck me was how graffiti was depicting less of phallic images and more social justice and gender equality messages. Below is one of the first images I took in the city, of just a newspaper kiosk that had this yonic heart saying “Legal abortion now.”
I’ll include a quick aside for historic context: Argentina fully criminalized abortion in 1880, in 1922 exceptions were given for rape, danger of the mother’s life, or if the mother was mentally disabled, and after the dictatorship in 1984 the law was changed again so that a woman had to be both mentally disabled and raped.
Current law is written so that a woman seeking an abortion is culpable but the doctor is not if given permission. This has caused issues in the past, where in 2016 and years past women have been imprisoned for having spontaneous miscarriages. The Human Rights Watch estimates that 500,000 illegal abortions occur annually in Argentina, making up 40% of all pregnancies and 30% of maternal deaths.
The topic of abortion, in my experience there, was as contentious as it is in the US, despite the differences of legality. In Buenos Aires, opinion was still divided but tipped a bit more in favor of legalizing abortion, especially with the youth and health care professionals. However in much more rural areas in the north, like Tucumán, the pro-life sentiment is far more pronounced. I attended a healthcare exposition there, with different organizations and advocacy groups telling people what they do, and a local medical school/hospital had a sign of a fetus with text saying that it “wants to live” and already has a heartbeat at six weeks old. The expectation that medical professionals stay judgment free wasn’t there, but to be fair doctor-patient relations are different in Argentina - there’s less privacy on both sides than in the US.
[This woman's back says “The rich abort, the poor die. Enough!”]
In Buenos Aires, I had the opportunity to join a pro-choice march. The culture around protesting is very different for los porteños (people from Buenos Aires). People regularly attend marches, or manifestaciones, at least monthly, whether it be for justice for a murdered man named Santiago Maldonado, or to demand workers’ rights, or to speak their minds on abortion legality. People very regularly talk politics, and it’s a lot more ingrained in the culture, partially because many remember the last dictatorship when their voices were silenced.
The march featured indigenous women invited to speak on why abortion needs to be legal. The smell of asado (barbecued beef) permeated the air and vendors sold icy cold beer. The march went from la casa rosada (the pink house where the president of Argentina lives) to the site of congress. Practically everyone sang and chanted, and many wore green bandanas saying “Sexual education to decide, contraceptives to not abort, legal abortion to not die.”
Student activist groups were everywhere, and I spoke with some of them. When I asked if they believed that they will see aborto legal in their lifetimes - most said no, not likely, but they still wanted the government to know they would fight for it.
Six months later, I started seeing many posts on Facebook and Instagram either for or against abortion from Argentine friends. I asked my closest friend I made in Buenos Aires, and she informed me that June 13th the lower chamber of Congress would hold an all-day debate about legalizing abortion and vote on a bill on June 14th. She expressed to me how big this moment was, and how hard she and her friends had fought for this change.
[This sign reads “Everyone aborts, only the poor die.” Todes and Les are part of the new grammatical movement in some sects in Spanish-speaking countries to create gender-neutral language.]
I asked her if she thought she might see abortion legalized in Argentina - she told me she had hope, but it would be a long wait as it moves up the legal ladder. Mauricio Macri, the president, has said that although he is pro-life, he will not veto a bill that’s passed by both houses of Congress.
I was delighted to see yesterday that the lower House of Congress passed the bill to legalize abortion. The bill now moves to the Senate, probably for a vote on September.
Although I am hopeful that the thousands of unsafe, clandestine abortions that happen in Argentina can be curbed with new legality, my understanding is that legalizing abortion will be a long process and hearts and minds have to be changed. Only time will tell if we’ll see this in our lifetimes.
Maxx Byron was an intern with the Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund last year. He spent his fall semester studying abroad in Argentina.