“When I tell people abroad that abortions are still illegal in Argentina, they say, ‘You must live in hell,’” says comedian Malena Pichot. “And yes, women in Argentina live in hell.”
The country has very restrictive abortion laws. Even when it is deemed lawful – in the case of rape, or when a woman’s life is in danger – doctors are often unwilling to proceed for fear of prosecution.
But a shift in public opinion in this traditionally conservative country has forced congress to vote on a bill to change the law later this month. The amendment would allow terminations in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.
“At last! Legal abortion is at the top of the feminist agenda,” says Señorita Bimbo, another comedian, whose treatment of abortion during her standup routines and on TV has helped propel the discussion about the subject into the mainstream media.
Bimbo, whose real name is María Virginia Godoy, says calls for abortion liberalisation are being driven by young women, who comprise the largest section of her audience. “These young women have clear knowledge of the issue, they don’t need it explained. They are not ashamed to be identified as feminists either, or of taking a stance on social media.”
This growing demand for legal changes has even prompted Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s centre-right president – who has repeatedly declared himself pro-life – to change his tune.
Last week, he said that if congress votes to relax abortion laws on 20 March, he would not veto the decision.
Argentina’s minister of culture, Pablo Avelluto, has already signed an open letter in which 86 leading Argentinian intellectuals declare their support for decriminalisation.
“There’s more people talking about abortion than ever before,” says Pichot, who rose to fame as a YouTube star 10 years ago. “It’s impressive, because for many years there were very few like me or Señorita Bimbo willing to talk openly about it.”
A massive International Women’s Day march paralysed traffic in the Argentinian capital on 8 March, as tens of thousands of women gathered before the congress building in Buenos Aires. A large number wore green bandanas around their necks – the symbol of support for decriminalisation.
Pro-choice supporters have steadily risen in number since 2015, when protests began against gender violence in Argentina, which is estimated to claim the life of one woman every 30 hours.
Rallying around the Ni una menos motto (“Not one less”, meaning no more women should be lost to male violence), the protests have become impossible for politicians to ignore.
“Many women who didn’t consider themselves feminists joined the #NiUnaMenos rallies and realised that the ban on abortion, which results in so many deaths of young women undergoing illegal abortions, is also a major issue,” says Pichot.
“[Roughly] 500,000 clandestine abortions are performed every year in Argentina,” says Victoria Donda, a leftwing legislator who is one of the main advocates for decriminalisation. “There are young women who go to jail for having undergone the procedure. This can’t go on.”
Complications related to clandestine abortions are the main cause of death among pregnant women in 17 out of 24 of Argentine provinces, according to Amnesty International.
Pichot and Señorita Bimbo are approached continually by women seeking advice on abortion. “They are very alone and come to us because we’re among the very few people talking about abortion publicly and frequently,” says Bimbo. “There’s so many women undergoing clandestine procedures. It’s happening all the time – it’s insane.”
In neighbouring Uruguay, the only South American nation where abortion is legal in all circumstances, the mortality rate from performed abortions has dropped dramatically since the procedure was legalised in 2012. In the late 1990s nearly 30% of maternal deaths could be attributed to unsafe abortions. In the two years after abortion was decriminalised, there were only two abortion-linked maternal deaths, both of which were attributed to backstreet abortions.
Opposition from the Catholic church is no small matter given that Pope Francis is from Argentina. “The Pope is Argentinian but he now lives in Italy, where abortion has been legal for a long time,” says Donda. “Let’s hope he doesn’t get involved.”