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Senators’ New Clothes

A lost vote but a renewed determination



Argentina’s Senate voted 38 to 31 to reject the law to decriminalise abortion in the early hours of August 9. Outside the Congress building, two million people gathered in the streets to remind Senators that public opinion has already been won over to the state taking responsibility for the deaths of women caused by illegal and unsafe abortions.

Inside the Senate, they voted to ignore the fact that complications from abortion remain the first cause of maternal mortality in Argentina (and in most of the rest of Latin America). It was clear that many Senators had chosen to ignore facts altogether. The majority that voted against chose to ignore the up to 500,000 illegal abortions that are known to take place each year and pretended that by voting against this law they were ‘for life’. Instead they turned a blind eye to the women who die from unsafe abortions and a deaf ear to social demands without precedent.

Throwing out this law means women continue to pay with their lives for the lack of legislation to give them rights over their own bodies.

The Senators who voted against the law offered arguments about two things nobody disputes: the value of life and their right to a personal conscience. They did not engage in the public debate on issues of public health and social justice, on the reality of sexual education and respect for human rights. They ignored the costs of abortion (the safe ones cost approximately US$1,000); they ignored the women who cannot afford to pay twice the minimum wage and will continue to seek unsafe abortions. They ignored the costs to the public health services of up to 55,000 hospital admissions from complications. And that is just the monetary cost.

In London, over 300 people came together to support the campaign on August 8. Photo credit: Ayelen Supa Villagra
In London, over 300 people came together to support the campaign on August 8. Photo credit: Ayelen Supa Villagra

Many of the Senators who voted against the law spoke of the importance of the Catholic Church, to them individually and its central place in the Constitution. It was a salutary reminder of the disproportionate power wielded by the Catholic hierarchy and its reach into the health and education systems and the pressure it can bring to bear on politicians.

The spectacle of many hours of self-important speeches full of personal opinions that failed to take seriously the wider social concerns reminded me of the Hans Christian Andersen story about the Emperor walking among his subjects in his new invisible clothes. Many Senators appeared convinced that the cloth cut for them by the Church made them look regal and dignified. The finery of traditional values and arguments drawn from a bygone age when women were ‘dignified by motherhood’ (Sen. de Angeli) were displayed as self-evident, as not needing justification. They paraded their ignorance and their refusal to engage with public opinion as if it were the high moral ground.

To the waiting millions who watched the session unfold, they looked naked and foolish and out of touch. A stencil promptly made a public appearance superimposing ‘the Senate’ onto the dinosaur profile more familiar from the film Jurassic Park. And the risk of extinction feels key to what brought dinosaurs to mind as Senators aired their views. The Senators lumbered on, unwilling to acknowledge that the world around them has changed.

On a container for rubbish, the people’s logo for the Senate.

What was won

The distance between the Senate chamber and the streets was much wider than the area marked out by the outsized ‘security’ railings around the building.

Out on the streets it was clear what has been won, regardless of the vote. The sheer number of people present was astounding, among the largest concentrations ever seen in Buenos Aires; the number of young people, reclaiming their place in the political process, was exhilarating. The re-definitions of the ‘we’ that were being imagined and shared on the streets were vibrant and diverse and joyful and hungry for reasoned debate.

There were numerous stages and tents with discussions and music, a confluence of shared creativity and action. The evident involvement of the Catholic Church in the Senate debate was countered with the distribution of paperwork to formally renounce the Catholic faith. People queued to sign the forms. Along with the green hankerchief of the legal abortion campaign, a new orange one appeared, calling for a real separation of church and state.

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Separation of church and state campaign

The activism that led to over a million people on the streets (and hundreds of thousands around Argentina and many more in support around the world) was sparked by the Ni Una Menos marches that began in 2015, to highlight violence against women. Since then, Ni Una Menos has catalysed a plurality of assemblies and debates and mobilisations that have grown in every part of society.

Most of those young people have come to politics through Ni Una Menos and through the debate on abortion. History was made on the streets on August 8 – nobody will forget the energy and the power of a shared experience of being conscious and vocal. Space was also made for the history of struggles: women who have been organising to get an abortion law to Congress for years were invited to speak. Nora Cortiñas of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo was there to link them with 40 years of human rights campaigning. Knowing themselves to be part of the history of struggles reinforced the mistrust of the Catholic Church – the claim that they were defending lives sounded hollow when they were complicit with the torture and murder of pregnant women during the last dictatorship.

Coming together across generations was a huge win for society – an echo of it was heard inside the Senate, in former-President Cristina Fernández’s speech – she voted for the law after changing her mind (she had not supported legalising abortion while in office). In her speech she said that it was the young women on the streets who had made her see differently – she understood that feminism and women’s activism is a necessary force to be reckoned with. Many other Senators who voted in favour of the law alluded to the importance of women and their new-found social voice. It may have been an attempt to ride the popularity of the demonstrations, but it also showed the real political weight of the new wave of feminism.

International support for the campaign across the world

And women in Argentina have felt the tremendous power of international solidarity, which came out in force. In the UK, the newly-formed Ni Una Menos UK brought together over 300 people to follow the debate. Across the world encouragement and support overflowed social media.

Ni Una Menos landed in the UK, organising a support ‘pañuelazo’ assembly. Photo credit: Ayelén Suppa Villagra

And that is the biggest win: a transformed sense of what women are able to demand as their full rights, out loud and together. Bringing abortion into the public light, out of the shadows of shame and taboo, is part of a process of women recognising that lived experience matters and silence doesn’t serve us. The vote has only strengthened the determination of campaigners. The Senators and the Church have made themselves visible to the organised outrage of those who want to ensure not one more woman dies from unsafe abortions. Campaigners now know who they need to replace to begin to break down patriarchy and allow social justice to flourish.

The chant that repeats and returns on the marches goes like this: ‘now that we are together, now that you can see us, patriarchy is going to fall, feminism is going to win’. This vote was a reminder that in order for patriarchy to fall, it is not enough to wait for it to jump, we’re going to have to push it.

Action ideas: join the new Ni Una Menos campaign in the UK and share your own ideas of #whatwewon #loqueganamos on NUM UK’s Twitter.

Cover illustrations: @LasMalcriadasNi// @feminastty // @hermanayotecreo. See more here.

Marcela López Levy is an Argentinian researcher and writer who has worked with social justice organisations in the UK and Latin America for the past two decades. She is currently integrating her training in psychology with social theory, focusing on the importance of group process and the imagination to feminist struggles. Her most recent book is Argentina under the Kirchners: The legacy of left populism (LAB 2017, available here).