How the “green wave” is fighting to legalize abortion across Latin America
August 8 was an emblematic day for Argentina. Fifty-four days earlier, the Argentine Congress passed a law that would decriminalize abortion in the country — 129 congressmen and -women voted in favor of the legislation while 125 voted against it — and now the final vote to legalize abortion in the nation was in the Senate’s hands. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass; 31 senators voted in favor of the legislation while 38 voted against it.
In the weeks leading up to this day, which had become known among activists as “8A,” more than a million activists occupied the streets of Argentina in support of the legislation. They had become known as “the green wave” because of the green scarves they wore, on which the slogan of the campaign to legalize abortion in the country was written: “Sexual education to decide, contraceptives to not abort, legal abortion to not die.” The scarf carries an important meaning in the context of the history of Argentinian women’s resistance, since scarves were also symbolically used by the “Abuelas y Madres de la Plaza de Mayo,” whose sons and grandsons were kidnapped by the military during the nation’s era of dictatorship (1976-1983) and still today relentlessly fight to find them.
On August 8, the crowd’s numbers grew to 1.5 million. These citizens took to the streets of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, to send a message about their wishes to those who occupy political offices. Young and old women, children, mothers, grandmothers, daughters, and granddaughters joined together with their families and other communities to form a diverse and fearless wave.
Some Argentinians who are against legalizing abortion, most due to their religious beliefs, showed up to the protest in blue scarves to symbolize their “pro-life” stance. The green scarves, who often refer to these blue-scarfed protesters as “anti-rights” rather than “pro-life,” continued to speak out in force despite this oppositional presence. For example, Nelly Minyersky, a 90-year-old retired Argentine lawyer who has been a feminist activist for more than 30 years, spoke publicly to the crowd at the 8A protest. “I don’t know if the law will be approved, but I’m convinced that we already won,” she said. “When I was going to the protest at the Congress, I ran into a group of girls in the subway and they told me that if the law isn’t approved today they will continue to fight tomorrow. If the senators don’t want to make history, [that] is their problem. The ones who will go down in history are the millions that are in the streets today.”
While this activism is encouraging, the fact remains that since the Argentinian Senate voted against legalizing abortion mere weeks ago, it's estimated that at least three Argentinian women have died due to complications from having illegal abortions. “From now on, each woman who dies or is arrested for abortion will be the fault of the Government and the 40 senators and members of the Congress who abstained or voted against our right for life, for health and the recognition of our dignity,” the Campaign for Legal, Safe and Free Abortion stated on Facebook on August 14.
It’s this reality that has inspired protests like the fight in Argentina to multiply all over Latin America. From Brazil to México, from Chile to Venezuela, from Peru to Costa Rica, from Bolivia to Ecuador, the green wave protesters’ call for legal, safe, and free abortion has intensified. The right to choose is influencing and energizing the activists in these countries, and these countries’ political institutions are paying more attention to their activism.
Activists involved in Brazil’s green wave took to the streets and shouted: “From north to south, America has united. Legalize in Argentina, legalize in Brazil.” In fact, the discussion of legalizing abortion had already taken root in the Brazilian government: On August 3-6 the Supreme Court of Brazil had opened a public hearing to debate abortion, which had long been considered a crime in the nation, punishable by up to three years of imprisonment. While the debate took place behind closed governmental doors, the National Front for Legalization of Abortion organized a festival outside the Supreme Court, which brought women from different parts of the country to gather and call attention to their perspectives on the matter. The large majority of these protestors were notably wearing the same green scarves that the Argentinian women did, signifying that this symbol, and the fight for legalizing abortion itself, was unified across borders.
The green wave is also advancing in Chile. The feminist organization Mesa Acción por el Aborto en Chile, which in prior years had started campaigns like one to end the stigma around abortion that exists in the country and that treats women who have had abortions like they are murderers, formally presented a new bill to their Congress on August 21. The bill would allow legal abortion in any case until the 14th week of pregnancy, overthrowing the current legislation that decriminalizes the voluntary interruption of pregnancy only in cases of fetal infeasibility, danger to women's life or health, or pregnancy from rape.
Meanwhile, in Venezuela, another Latin American country with highly restrictive abortion laws, a number of feminist groups presented a proposal to legalize abortion and guarantee sexual and reproductive rights to their National Constitutional Assembly on June 20. The activist groups at the helm of this effort, including the Red de Información Aborto Seguro, Colectivo Tinta Violeta, Red Araña Feminista, and Frente Cultural de Izquierda, are now hoping the government will hold a plebiscite on legalizing abortion. Their efforts are supported by the public: Research shows that almost 40 percent of Venezuelans support legalizing abortion.
Some activists are taking hope from the path that Uruguay, one of the only Latin American countries where abortion is legal, took to legalize the procedure. While legislation that decriminalized abortion was approved by Uruguay’s Congress in 2002, the Senate rejected it. In 2007, the legislation was approved by both the Congress and Senate, but then rejected by the president. It wasn’t until 2012, 10 years after the first legislative attempt to decriminalize abortion, that the procedure was finally legalized in the county. Argentina has clearly followed the same first step that Uruguay did, and hopefully the green wave will help usher in the next.
Although the possibility of legalizing abortion in Argentina and elsewhere remains to be seen, one thing seems clear: The green wave is proving itself to be unstoppable. Many green wave activists are already preparing for a big protest in September 28, the day that marks the struggle for this political agenda in Latin America and the Caribbean. As millions of protestors at the 8A protest sang, “Now that we are so many, now that they can see us, down with patriarchy, it’s going down, it’s going down.” And as journalist Mariana Carabjal wrote of the status of legal abortion, “It wasn’t [legal] yesterday. Tomorrow it will be.”
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