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Legal, safe, free

Argentina’s fight for abortion rights

Natalia Tylim and Camila Valle interview two activists and leaders of the Argentinian movement for legal, safe, and free abortions. Jea Cisneros and Cele Fierro are socialist feminist activists, they provide an update on the state of this important movement, drawing connections and sharing crucial strategic insights for the international left.

We present an interview with Jea Cisneros, a socialist activist in the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito (National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion) in Buenos Aires, and Cele Fierro, an activist with the Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (Workers’ Socialist Movement) and on the national coordinating body of its feminist grouping, Juntas y a la Izquierda (Together and to the Left).

Since 2005, feminist activists in Argentina have been organizing and fighting for abortion through the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito (“La Campaña”). In 2018, mass mobilizations—dubbed La Marea Verde (the green tide) because of the campaign’s signature color, visually represented by green pañuelos, or handkerchiefs—led to a groundbreaking vote by the Chamber of Deputies to pass legislation legalizing abortion. While the Senate ultimately and narrowly rejected the legislation in 2018, activists continue to push for the legislation.

Following national elections, the newly elected Argentinian government was supposed to debate the issue again this past March but the discussions were delayed, ostensibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On November 9, President Alberto Fernández finally declared that debate on the legislation was to begin before the end of the year. On December 1, the Chamber of Deputies began to discuss the proposal. As these deliberations continue inside the the government, activists in the feminist movement are trying to forge a path forward and far-right groups, funded by the Catholic and evangelical churches, are carrying out mass mobilizations against abortion. The interview was originally conducted in Spanish and translated by Natalia Tylim and Camila Valle. It has been lightly edited. Anything in brackets ([]) was added by the editors for readability.

Natalia Tylim: Can you talk about the new abortion legislation that Alberto Fernández has just put forward?

Cele Fierro: It is important to emphasize that the legislation Fernández presented is not the same one that was drafted by La Campaña. The national campaign’s legislation has parliamentary status, which means it could be debated right now if they chose to take it up. But the religious lobby’s interests are also at play. The legislation the government is presenting now is much more limited. We believe that the legislation on the table should be the one crafted collectively by the more than five hundred different organizations that are part of La Campaña.

Jea Cisneros: The current proposed legislation is very limited. It allows healthcare professionals to conscientiously object to performing abortion procedures and gives a ten-day window for abortion appointments to be granted, as opposed to the five-day window outlined in the legislation drafted by La Campaña. Unlike the proposal put forward by La Campaña, Fernández’s proposal does not stipulate that information given to pregnant people seeking abortions must respect the separation of church and state. It also criminalizes abortion after the fourteenth week, compared to La Campaña’s proposal which says there should be no limit on when someone can get an abortion. Fernández also presented the Thousand Days Program as a nod to the anti-choicers. Among other things, it pushes the eligibility of pregnant people to government subsidies and other benefits from six months of pregnancy to nine months. This is in the context of IMF induced mass austerity and it is absolutely nothing close to a comprehensive program of care. It denies that abortion is a public health issue and criminalizes poverty by implying that the only people deciding to have abortions are poor women. It’s true that the majority of people who die from illegal abortions are poor, because they don’t have access to clandestine abortion pills or a doctor. If they do, it’s to inadequate ones. But that doesn’t mean that the only people who exercise the right to abortion are poor women.

NT: Can you tell us more about La Campaña itself? How did it come together?

CF: In 2018, the Marea Verde for abortion was expressed in full force. But it came out of a history of previous struggle. La Campaña was founded in 2005 within the context of the National Meeting of Women, annual meetings that have been taking place for over thirty years now. People in different provinces and other countries participate too—it’s a very important event. There are thematic workshops, and in 2005, in a workshop on the right to legal abortion, in the city of Rosario I believe, it was decided that they would form the national campaign. It was first started in the capital city, Buenos Aires, but then it spread to the rest of the country.

Since then, the legislation has been presented to the government every two years. In Argentina, a proposed legislation lasts two years, which means that if it is not discussed in that time, you have to present it over again. In 2015 came the rise of the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement in Argentina, the fight against femicide and gendered violence which quickly spread to the whole continent. It was all reverberating on an international level, with a mass character and with combativity.You could quickly come to certain conclusions about capitalism and patriarchy through this struggle. It’s not this or that institution or this or that femicide, or this or that issue: gendered oppression is global and ’is systemic. In 2018, in the context of the new international feminist wave and with all the pressure that had been building up, the government, which at the time was that of Mauricio Macri [of the Republican Proposal Party], finally debated the legislation.

People did not predict that this would transform into that massive Marea Verde. People thought it was a taboo subject, that it wouldn’t express itself in the streets in this massive way. But in 2005, La Campaña helped break the silence that led to the explosion in 2018. The new Fernández government assumed power in this context and promised abortion would be legalized in 2020. But the Fernández administration also has agreements and pacts with the Catholic Church, with the Vatican, the Pope (who is Argentinian).With the same institutions that fight against not only the right to abortion, but also against activists, LGBTQ people, women in general, and very elemental democratic rights.

JC: An important issue within the campaign is that the governing parties, Macrismo and now the Frente de Todos [Fernández’s coalition party], both have anti-abortion wings and institutional relationships with the church. Fernández is tied to Pope Francis, María Eugenia Vidal [former Governor of Buenos Aires Province and former Deputy Mayor of the City of Buenos Aires, of Macri’s Republican Proposal Party] is tied to Opus Dei, and so it makes it challenging to discuss our rights. We don’t want a negotiation of interests, which is what the sectors in power are carrying out. Exactly where and how abortion will be guaranteed in Fernández’ legislation depends on how these negotiations go.

In 2018, we mobilized all year to get unions to support the demands of the movement. Today, the unions support the demands, but they haven’t drawn the conclusion that it was the mobilizations in the streets that pushed consciousness on the issue forward. [From March to November] the government had been postponing the legislation on abortion in order to avoid mobilizations. They say in their speeches: “We don’t want a polarized country.” But it’s inevitable—there is a sector in favor of legalizing abortion and there is a sector opposed. This is the reality that defines us. To win access to abortion, we need to confront the ideas of those opposed to it.

There are also important debates happening inside La Campaña. The government is part of La Campaña, it isn’t outside of it, and their position is to always be putting the breaks on organizing: “Let’s wait, let’s see where things go with the executive, we can’t prioritize mobilizations because it makes us weaker and makes it harder to have dialogue inside the Senate.” There are lots of different orientations within the campaign and some sectors have absolute confidence in the Senate, the Deputies, and the regime. We don’t—and when I say “we,” I don’t just mean Cele and I, I mean a broader collective of comrades who are fed up with institutions leaving them out of decisions about their own rights. In that sense, we are at a critical moment.

NT: What is the internal structure of La Campaña like?

JC: La Campaña was born from a National Meeting of Women and has a federal structure. Every territory, or province, or state, can form a branch of La Campaña—what we call territoriales. All of the comrades of that province meet and organize actions through their local branch, do parliamentary lobbying where they go to talk with deputies, senators, or sections of the government to get them to support our rights, and so on. On the one hand, the structure of La Campaña creates locals that operate like assemblies – collective spaces where anyone can participate and share their opinion. On the other hand, the assemblies make decisions by consensus. They don’t take majority votes and when there isn’t consensus, nothing happens. Right now, for example, a majority of people want to mobilize, but we can’t take mass action because there is a minority, which is allied with the government, that is saying no. Consensus based organizing is a big limiting factor.

“The struggle is as long as our memory.” Activists from the early 1980s.

In addition to the territoriales, La Campaña organizes networks. For example, the Network of Health Care Professionals for the Right to Decide is made up of compañeres who work in hospitals (doctors, psychologists, social workers, etc). They accompany many people through the process of getting an abortion, helping people get access as their own exercise of a kind of conscientious objection. They also help guarantee the Legal Interruption of Pregnancy and organize their colleagues to join them in supporting and mobilizing for the right to abortion. In addition, medical schools do not train students in abortion procedures, so members of La Campaña who are in healthcare help give that training.

There are other networks too. Mutual aid networks, for example, are dedicated to helping people access abortion at home, specifically with misoprostal and mifeprestone pills. They make lists that have the phone numbers of friendly doctors. This has been very useful during this [pandemic] period to make sure people have the best possible access to and conditions for abortion. There are other networks too, like the teachers. La Campaña has a triple slogan. It’s not just the right to abortion, it’s “sexual education to decide, contraceptives to not abort, and abortion to not die.” So teachers play an important role.

La Campaña also has a national plenary, which is quite complicated. Once a year, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on what debates are taking place inside La Campaña, a national plenary is organized. Generally, people don’t go as individual delegates, they go as groups of compañeres to represent a regional consensus that was developed by a regional group, or to otherwise argue for a series of ideas. The last national plenary last December was just before the inauguration of president Alberto. It was a very big debate about whether we needed to expand our fight or if we could be confident that the government would take care of the legislation.

Camila Valle: You’ve already spoken a little bit about this, but would you like to say more about the change between the Macri government and the Fernández government? What are the biggest differences and similarities between the two governments? How did this impact the development of the perspective of La Campaña?

JC: First, La Campaña in 2018 was more radical in certain ways—not in every way—but it was more radical in the sense of taking the streets. Internally, La Campaña included sections of the Radical Civil Union, which was part of the Cambiemos bloc, but it was not the most powerful sector internally in Cambiemos, and represented a more democratic sector of the Radical Civil Union. In this sense, a section of La Campaña was more radical when it was the opposition. When it became official, many inside La Campaña wanted to defend the government from all the comrades who were radicalized by the struggle and weren’t going to stop because of who was in power. And they needed to put the brakes on it. So you have that on the one hand. On the other hand, both Macri who says he is against abortion and Fernández who says he is in favor have people inside their political coalitions who profoundly disagree with them on abortion. Mónica Macha of the Frente de Todos and Silvia Lospennato of Cambiemos are both deputies who defend the fight for abortion rights and are from different political groupings. At the same time, inside the groups, there is also a right wing, in both Cambiemos and Frente de Todos.

CF: I think it goes back to what we said before about the relationship between the government and anti-abortion sectors—it’s not about anti-abortion sectors supporting this or that party, but about the anti-abortion institutions themselves. I think this is part of what made Fernández put forward his own legislation instead of the one developed and approved by La Campaña. The general political and economic situation in the country has opened up a debate about the government’s priorities. I actually think that the path the Frente de Todos government has taken these last few weeks has also begun to disappoint a section of people who voted for it and trusted it, because things are starting to add up.

For the government, the decision was about whether it had more or less to gain by putting forward abortion legislation. From the government’s perspective, the perspective of the ruling party, they felt that they had much more to lose if they didn’t present something.

But they are also using the current situation [of COVID] as a bargaining chip, because the truth is we have been talking about the right to safe, legal, free abortion since long before the start of quarantine in Argentina or the pandemic. Because it is a public health and human rights issue and it does not matter if we are in a pandemic or not. The reality is that abortions continue to happen and will continue to happen. Pregnant people will continue to die from botched abortions and the resulting infection. We believe the right to abortion needs to be guaranteed now, it’s a priority now. Throughout this period, the government has said that our healthcare system is going to collapse, that we can’t approve the legislation now because the focus has to be on addressing the coronavirus. The reality is that if abortion were legal, if we had comprehensive sexual education like we have always demanded, if we truly had access to contraception and abortion pills, not only would it be possible to provide abortion widely and freely, but it also would eliminate one of the strains on the health care system [that comes from people not being able to access abortion].

So, in that sense, the biggest difference with the Cambiemos government has much more to do with the discourse, not so much with the politics that they carry out. What people believed the government would do and what it is doing are two different things. Last month, for example, there was a demonstration against the International Monetary Fund, which wants to audit our country’s finances. The government has asked for new terms on the repayment of the debt, a debt that it opposed and denounced when it was taken out by the Macri government. When the current government was the opposition party, it denounced the debt, it said it was fraudulent, and that we could not return the money to the International Monetary Fund. But today, they sit down to negotiate the debt with the country’s funds for retirement. These are all signs that the political economy is not so fundamentally different than what it has been for years. And it’s becoming very clear that the government’s narrative and what it does don’t match up, and I think abortion is another factor at play in that contradiction.

NT: I’m interested in hearing more about the way the movement space operates in relation to political parties. It’s an independent movement for the right to abortion that contains various parties, classes, arguments inside of that umbrella. Can you tell us more about the different tendencies of the movement and how they interact? How are those debates evolving?

JC: I’ll throw out different organizations so you can start to put together a map of the players. One of the central players in La Campaña at the national level is Catholics for the Right to Decide, and they shape the strategy in most of La Campaña. For example, the most important figure of Catholics for the Right to Decide from 2018, Victoria Tesoreiro, is now in the Fernández government as a secretary in the Ministry of the Interior. This isn’t a minor thing. And Catholics for the Right to Decide, because they are an NGO, receive international funding, meaning they get funds from the United Nations and other institutions like that. This is the sector whose primary strategy is to defer to the institutions of the state and the government, to trust in the dialogue between deputies and senators, to not mess anything up to make sure those relationships stay strong. They believe that being confrontational weakens the movement.

Another important sector at the national level is the Socorristas. The Socorristas are a Kirchnerist populist sector that have argued that legal abortion is already available with misoprostol and mifoprostal pills. They defend the right to legal abortion and up until now have been the group inside the government most frustrated with Fernández for not putting the legislation forward. It is an important dynamic.

Other sectors that have had a lot of influence over many years are the Radical Civil Union, the Socialist Party, and sections of Peronism. These are democrats and liberals who aren’t on the Left, but think abortion should be legalized. In addition, there is also the Left, as well as independent sectors. Since 2018, La Campaña has brought in many independents but how the different political sectors engage and work with the independents is another issue. The arguments are centered around how, why, and who makes decisions in La Campaña. This is a central issue: Does one sector of La Campaña get to decide because they have the financing, contacts, and ties to the government? Or do we all decide and carry the decisions out together? Who decides is connected to how decisions get made and in what spaces.

Another big debate we are having is: how to respond to the most reactionary sectors? The Evangelical Church, above all, has managed to grow by turning abortion into a question of “defending life.” A sector of Catholics within La Campaña, and closely tied to the government, wants it to adopt the perspective of defending life, so that people for the right to abortion can say “we also defend life.” There are others who say we have to put forward a political explanation of what it means to “defend life,” like the need to fight for comprehensive sexual education, birth control, and a public health perspective that encapsulates all aspects of life.

I was asking myself about the United States: What makes it possible for those anti-choice sectors to advance within the context of a right that already exists? And I think it has to do with the right to healthcare being a democratic right—a right we have in Argentina and which contributes to the mass character of the fight for abortion here.

CF: There are over five hundred organizations within La Campaña, as we were saying earlier, but much of the leadership takes a centrist direction. In fact, La Campaña encompases a cross-class movement, which is true of many women’s and feminist movements in general. Within La Campaña there are these multiple sectors, but I emphasize the centrism because it shapes the debates, who participates, and who decides. This centrism has led La Campaña to often focus only on the institutional lobby, as Jea was saying. For example, in the 2018 mobilization, organization, and mass participation was without a doubt what led to the legislation being debated in the first place, as well as what kept it going and got it passed in the Chamber of Deputies. But instead of maintaining that strategy, when the Senate debated it and later walked it back, La Campaña kept saying “what we’re doing is debating with the senators, it’s senator to senator.” When the legislation was being addressed by the Chamber of Deputies, the La Campaña stage was right there next to the Congress building, but when it was being addressed by the Senate, they physically moved the stage like ten blocks away, right Jea?

JC: Yes, ten blocks! You both know Buenos Aires, they took it from Congress almost to the Obelisk [i.e. quite a distance]!

CF: The amazing thing about the 2018 period is that the Marea Verde ended up bypassing those commands from the top. The day when the Senate discussed the legislation, there were thousands of people surrounding the Congress building, the Marea Verde was not…blocks away. [The more centrist strategy] can be overcome and I think the impact feminist, socialist, left-wing, and radical organizations had and can have is very important because it has been shown through the years that we can’t win our rights without mass mobilization and pressure.

“Not one more dead woman from a clandestine abortion”

CV: How do you understand the role of Ni Una Menos, the Latin American movement against femicide more generally, the Mexican movement against femicide in particular, as well as the recent constitutional victory in Chile, in the context of the fight for legal abortion in Argentina? What is the relationship between the Marea Verde and the Marea Violeta (purple tide)?

CF: To me, it’s about a new moment in the international feminist movement. For several years, the struggles of the women’s movements, their dissent, have played a crucial role in many countries in the world. Of course there is unevenness, sometimes striking, but the movements have expressed themselves and are a response to the capitalist crisis we are living through. It is an economic crisis, absolutely, but it is also a social one, a political one. Feminist movements have emerged as constant pushbacks against the unwavering attacks on our rights—labor rights, gender rights, environmental rights. We are in a socially and politically polarized situation, where the crisis sharpens more and more, and there are radicalizing sectors taking the helm. It’s also why we are seeing the rise of different right-wing sectors. The enormous mobilizations of the struggles emerging in Latin America and also in the rest of the world are what’s dynamic about the situation. What has been happening in the United States, for example, in the fight against racism is all part of the current moment.

What has happened in Chile is part of this same phenomenon. We can’t forget that last September, the Chilean president was declaring Chile the “oasis” in a Latin America rocked by mass protests. But then it exploded [in Chile] on October 18 of last year with school-age kids who went out into the streets and kept mobilizing, and they won a constitutional change. It is hugely significant for Chile in the sense of getting rid of, once and for all, the agreements made on the way out of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Here, the Marea Verde in 2018 was massive. But our rights can be taken away if there’s no organization that continues those fights coming out of it. We need an organization that arises organically, and is organized, with a strategy not just about the right to abortion but also about how to implement legalization if it passes. The fight has to be systemic, it has to be about how to get to the root of things, to a more profound transformation of society.

JC: The Argentinian movement and the Mexican movement are super important. To keep highlighting continuities, the women’s strike in Poland in response to the first attempt to make abortion illegal was crucial. It was a very significant reference point for the international women’s strikes that drew out the importance of class in the fights for our rights. The international women’s strikes created a network to share experiences of collective struggle and global solidarity, which was reflected on June 13 and August 8, 2018. International solidarity has been very important for the Argentinian movement—for example, the fact that pañuelazos [mass mobilizations featuring the pañuelos—Eds.] happened at the same time in many countries helped pressure the legalization of abortion here. We had already pushed for the legislation for many years at that point, and even within the context of the feminist wave there was a change in how the youth in the movement processed that struggle.

In February 2018, the young people, young women, went through a profound period of struggle, [and the experience of identifying with the struggle while also dealing with] different institutions, the schools, the role of education, everything. I mean, at school girls had to get in line to have their green handkerchiefs removed before entering. These were all crucial experiences that made them see the function of institutions and the status quo, and the importance of mass struggle to change that reality. If it hadn’t been for all of that, they would not have been able to sustain the more than three months of mass mobilizations in the streets.

NT: I wanted to ask more about the right-wing forces in Argentina that are against abortion. How are they organized and what are their strategies? In the United States, the right is very focused not only on legislation but also on mobilizing in the streets. We are losing so much ideological ground. Is the right a big and important force in Argentina as well? Is it tied to right-wing forces in the United States or Brazil?

CV: As Natalia is saying, abortion is legal here and the right monopolizes the streets when it comes to the issue. They have tons of demonstrations and many churches take their congregants to clinics where abortions happen and protest there—they pray, sing, spray holy water, and otherwise harass patients.

JC: I think it’s very important to understand how the state and the Catholic Church are intimately tied in Argentina. Take, for example, the attacks against the compañeras who are working to guarantee abortion under the Legal Interruption of Pregnancy law today. Opus Dei has a central role in the ethical and moral commissions [organized at] the hospitals. So they are very quickly mobilized, sometimes more quickly than we can mobilize ourselves. Luckily, during the last two years, we were able to create networks that let us move more quickly, but before 2018 the anti-choicers were ready to mobilize and attack us. We were only able to chip away at that stranglehold because of solidarity.

Their main tactic is psychological, moral—showing giant fetuses, things like that. When we went to Salta for the National Meeting of Women, they met us with giant, horrible, totally doctored photos of fetuses. This is an attack that weaponizes [conceptions of motherhood] and demonizes people for the decision to have an abortion. But it’s also more than that. The right has sectors of evangelicals, of the Catholic Church and their leaders support them politically even if they aren’t part of the mobilizations. In other words, the cardinal of Buenos Aires isn’t going to be at the demonstration, but he gives support so that the protests can happen.

NT: In the United States, we won legal abortion in the 1970s, but in reality, access to abortion is very limited and it gets worse every day. There are always more laws, more obstacles. Are there any lessons you would like to pass on from the movement in Argentina to activists who want to defend the right to abortion in the United States?

CF: I think it starts from being able to analyze the situation and develop a positive vision. Progress is made through organization, through the development of struggle. I think the examples of Poland and Ireland are important. Jea talked about Poland, but Ireland is another ultra-Catholic country where they won the right to abortion as a result of mobilizations.

We are going through an era of enormous capitalist crisis, which means there is going to be a permanent fight with the anti-abortion sectors and the right. We have to understand that each of these fights is just a part of our fight against different governments and the system that continues to make us pay for the crisis with permanent attacks on the rights of workers, women, and youth. To really succeed in any of these fights, we don’t just have to fight around specific demands, it also matters how we set ourselves up to keep organizing for more. Because the reality of a capitalist, patriarchal system is that it puts all of our rights at risk. We need to be able to take each of these struggles, all the comrades who want to carry them forward, and organize through to the end to fight for structural changes. So no matter what, the fight does not end here with this legislation.

In Argentina, we can say that we have won a lot of laws for gender rights, such as comprehensive sexual education, which we won after more than ten years of struggle. But it hasn’t been implemented, it has no budget and no training for teachers has been provided so that it can be carried out. There is a Reproductive Health Law that stipulates, for example, free contraceptives for all. This also hasn’t happened and public health continues to be defunded more and more. We have the law against gender violence, a magnificent law on paper in terms of what it proposes to eradicate and respond to gender violence—but it also doesn’t work in practice. The law is not applied because the budget is insufficient and underutilized. So, however much we win, we are in a moment where our rights are incompatible with the system. We have to keep organizing this fight until the end if we want to truly be in a position to discuss an egalitarian society that guarantees us our rights. For us this is socialism and, of course, would mean that workers, our class, is at the head of the leadership and decision making.

JC: Something that seems important to me is unity of action, with the objective of creating more spaces that allow you to fight to defend the right to abortion. And in that sense, I think that at this moment of feminist uprising that we are living through, in the role of the institutions, the courts, the healthcare system, the chambers of government, the state and governors themselves there is a lot of room for feminist discussions on the role of systematic patriarchy. Even if people don’t consider capitalism to be the problem, if there is a feminist movement that fights against patriarchy and understands that patriarchy is also institutional, well, like Cele says, the task is to sustain that fight, to have a debate about the orientation and how to organize, and to draw analyses. I don’t know if anti-men radical feminism is hegemonic in the United States, but at least here it’s not. Here, the liberal, reformist wings of feminism say that patriarchy exists, and this recognition is an opening for fighting against the institutions of the state and making broader arguments along the way.

A very important example is what happened when the Marea Verde subsided. The process ended in 2018 with the Chamber of Senators voting against the legislation. For many, the fact that they voted against it was another example of institutional patriarchy, that the church was in coalition with the Senate making pacts against women’s rights behind closed doors. An important sector of independent comrades pointed this out, and they began to argue that La Campaña for the right to abortion means we have to demand our rights from the institutions; the law does not guarantee us anything. That was an important lesson.

One last thing, in relation to what you were saying about the United States. Our experience of trying to build an abortion movement was of calling for and organizing feminist assemblies in that moment. If the leaderships of La Campaña or the organizations weren’t going to accompany the process of struggle that we were going through, we were going to do it ourselves. The anti-choicers were winning in the streets because feminism was being co-opted by the power of the state, and through the experience of countering that by organizing ourselves very deliberately we created so much space to work through things and cohere forces. If you ever need any help or support doing that in the United States, you can count on us.

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Natalia Tylim & Camila Valle View All

Natalia Tylim is a member of the Tempest Collective in NYC who has been active in various efforts to defend bodily autonomy for many years. Camila Valle is a member of New York City for Abortion Rights.