Monday 15 October 2007

Abortion in Argentina: From Catholic Hegemony to Practical Secularity

Please note: This article was posted last week on It can be found in that website at this location.

Ireland and Argentina share a host of historical similarities. Both nations emerged from colonial ruling through wars of independence, and found themselves subsequently undergoing tremendous social change. The main religious faith in both nations has been the Roman Catholic Church, and thus a conservative tradition has been followed in the two Republics. Moreover, there has been a recent upswing of neo-liberal economic policies, which were welcomed in the two countries after decades of stagnation. With these parallels in mind, it is important we consider the Argentinian case from the Irish perspective.

Among Latin American nations, The Republic of Argentina has not historically been a progressive state. It found itself at its most conservative 30 years ago, when under the grip of a brutal military dictatorship, which had the blessing of the local Catholic hierarchy.

In the aftermath of the dictatorship, millions still adhered to the faith, but just as many questioned whether the institution was divorced from the belief system. Priests who had attempted to protect people were ignored by the hierarchy, who ingratiated themselves with those in power, and collaborated with repressive activities. These situations, added to many notorious cases of sexual abuse within the clergy, fostered a situation that still exists today. According to Reader's Digest Argentina, very few people want to be ordained as priests, and while recent polls show 80% of Argentinians are baptized Catholics, only 18% of those admitted to attending mass regularly. The prevailing view, Reader's Digest quotes, is one of faith without institutionalisation. These events mirror, to a degree, the historical situation of Ireland and the Catholic Church, with mass attendance and ordination of priests equally in sharp decline.

It is unsurprising, then, that popular legislative proposals would occur at a time when the Church's power is in question. Argentina and Ireland both saw, firstly, a legalisation of divorce, the former ratified in 1987, the latter voted for in 1995 and enacted in 1997. Ever since then, the focus has shifted to other civil rights issues, including a woman’s right to choose.

During the 1990s, Argentina was ruled by a neoliberal strand of the Partido Justicialista, also known as the Peronist Party, presided by Carlos Saúl Menem. That government enacted economic policies very similar to those of present-day Ireland. Similarly to Ireland, the government aimed not to rock the boat too much with risky legislative moves. Hence, they provided assurances to the Holy See that abortion would not be legalised, going as far as declaring March 25th "Day of the Unborn Child". Subsequent governments didn't act on the issue. Although illegal, abortions were performed by physicians, under very restrictive circumstances, often requiring the patient to obtain a court order that would authorise the procedure. This was due to the unclear nature of the legislation in case of rape, or risk to the mother's life.

The election of Nestor Kirchner to the presidency in 2003 began a sweeping tide of reform, despite Kirchner's affiliation to the Peronist Party. In 2005, his appointed Health Minister, Ginés González García, declared his support for full legalisation of abortion, coupled with his endorsement of a programme of free sex education and contraception distribution. Moreover, 2005 also saw the appointment of the first female judge to the Supreme Court of Justice, Carmen Argibay, who has also stated her support for the legalisation of terminations within the Republic. In a recent response to attacks from the Catholic Church, who claimed there was "an uncontrolled rush for abortion", Minister González García stated:

"Intolerance has many ways of showing itself, and this is one of the worst kinds. It is against the law, as well as an attempt to force a person to be a mother, simply because some people consider their religious ideas must be shared by everyone." (Página/12 [1])

The current situation is one where the government is taking slow, careful steps, yet doing so with seeming certainty of purpose. Abortion remains illegal, but it is considered "non-punishable" in cases of rape, mental illness, or where the pregnant woman's life is in danger. The key difference with the Irish situation is that, while abortion is indeed legal for such cases unlike Argentina, the main regulator body for medical licenses regards abortion as malpractice. While President Kirchner has not condoned either side, many of his apointees are supporting a progressive pro-choice agenda. The government of the Province of Buenos Aires, the most populous area of the nation, has announced a plan to issue guidelines regarding terminations to doctors, clarifying requirements as well as proper procedures. The Ministry of Health, similarly, announced a programme of revision of the Penal Code, which will make the legal situation clear, and furthermore work towards the legalisation. (Pagina/12 [2])

These are first steps, and by no means final. The Catholic Hierarchy along with many other so-called pro-life organisations have mounted a legal defense against the legalisation of abortion, based on ideas of the right to life. Their main argument is that the Constitution defends the life of all Argentinians, including the unborn, and the Constitution supercedes the Penal Code. However, popular support for their side seems to be waning, as more and more personal stories reach the mass media, and suspicion is rampant regarding the institution of the Catholic Church. During a recent demonstration celebrating the "Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion", Vanina Biasi, of the Polo Obrero worker's rights group, stated:

"For the last 80 years, abortion has been allower partially in Argentina, and for the last five they have been persecuting women who seek non-punishable abortions, protected by law. Because of this, we demand the enforcement of the Penal Code, and the legalisation of this medical practice." (Pagina/12 [3])

It is important, then, to remember that the struggle to recognise a woman’s right to choose is still ongoing in Argentina, despite positive developments. A woman seeking an abortion will usually be turned away by the public health system, unless their life is in danger, and few can afford the specialist treatment offered by the nation’s myriad private clinics. Many then seek backstreet abortions, which are incredibly unsafe, and as recently as last Sunday a woman was reportedly dead after subjecting herself to such a procedure in the northern Argentinian city of Salta (Indymedia [1]). Approximately two women died every day due to backstreet abortions, according to a 2004 news report from Women on Waves.

As it is now, however, the Argentinian situation seems to at least feature the political will to address the issue of abortion, unlike the current administration in the Republic of Ireland. It is of the uttermost importance that such a pivotal issue of civil rights begins to take part in the national political debate, and that steps are taken to legislate for abortion in the Republic of Ireland.



[1] "The Archdiocese's New Crusade", published on the 25th of September, 2007 at
[2] "To Quell All Doubt", published on the 10th of September, 2007 located at
[3] "Demonstration Demands the Decriminalization of Abortion", published on the 29th of September, 2007 located at

-Reader's Digest Argentina
[1] "What do we Believe in? Seven out of ten respondents consider themselves religious, but only 21% of them practice it." obtained from

-Indymedia Argentina:
[1]" Woman in Salta Dies after Subjecting Herself to a Clandestine Abortion", published on October 09th, 2007 at

-Women on Waves
"Stir in Argentina", December 2004, located at

Further Information:
Catholics for the Right to Choose:

Abortion in Argentina:
Human Rights Watch - Abortion in Argentina:
Expanding Access to Abortion - Strategies for Action:

Related Link:

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