Interview: Brenda Austin, pro-choice Argentinian congresswoman

  1. "Sooner or later this project must become law"
  2. Two women dead due to botched abortions since Senate rejected bill last week
  3. "The State is responsible" for their deaths, says Austin
  4. Nevertheless, she says: "Feminism has made huge strides. It's managed to find a vehicle through which to channel its demands into concrete proposals."

Brenda Austin is one of four congresswomen who introduced the bill that would have legalized abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy in Argentina. Had it passed, Argentina would have become the third country – as well as the most populous – to legalize the procedure in socially conservative Latin America.

The project edged through Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies (lower house) in June 2018 with 129 votes in favour, 125 against, and one abstention. But it was rejected by the more conservative Senate last week, with 38 votes against and 31 for. Pro-choice lawmakers will have to wait until next year to re-introduce a similar bill.

Currently, abortions are illegal in Argentina unless the mother’s life or health (including mental health, as from 2015) is at risk, if the pregnancy was the product of rape, or if the mother is considered mentally unfit.

The latest statistics on the number of yearly abortions dates back to a 2005 joint study between the Ministry of Health and CEDES, a non-profit organization. The study used two different methodologies to calculate a range of 370,000 to 520,000 legal and illegal yearly abortions in Argentina (Perfil, in Spanish).

Brenda Austin is a member of the Union Cívica Radical party and represents the Argentinian province of Córdoba. WikiTribune interviewed her on August 16.

This interview has been translated by WikiTribune, and was substantially edited for clarity and length.

WikiTribune: What strategy will pro-choice campaigners pursue after the bill was voted down in the Senate?

Austin: We are still in a process of evaluation as to our next steps but with the conviction that sooner or later this project must become law. We are still looking for the different strategies that will allow us to build a majority consensus to do so. A new chapter is opening on the discussion. The executive power will send a modification project for Argentina’s penal code which includes at least three articles that pertain to the discussion we were having over the project for the voluntary interruption of pregnancies. This presents a window of opportunity to try to move forward, if not with what was being proposed with the rejected bill, to at least put one step forward… Regardless, there is a wide range of options that are open to us. There are those who maintain that another important road to explore is that of a referendum – a plebiscite. Lastly, we have the option, as from March 2019, to insist once again before the nation’s Congress with the presentation of a new project.

Editor’s note: A few hours after the interview, Argentinian newspaper La Nación reported that President Macri would not be submitting a penal code reform bill next week because some argued it amounted to a proposal for de facto legalization. Austin told WikiTribune: “It isn’t clear if this is only a temporary suspension and if closer to the end of the year it will be submitted, or if the delay is even greater… The truth is that this was an opportunity that had opened that was interesting, but we will continue with the original plan that was to look at what happens next year.”

Is that last option the most attractive?

Austin: To present it again? We will certainly present the project again. Obviously if we reach that point having made a measure of progress with regard to some of the wider issues, that would be welcome… I think the most important thing is to recognize the process of social maturity that Argentina has undergone during the course of this discussion, where a topic that historically has been taboo – that was shrouded in myths and fears – underwent a public discussion, not only in Congress but in all walks of society… It was a debate that was had throughout the whole country.

How would you characterise this year’s effort to legalize abortion?

Austin: It was a really important step. The project for the National Campaign for the Right to a Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion has been presented in Congress [seven times] over the last 12 years. Never once was it treated in any of the four commissions that could have heard it… In this case, the advance we made was enormous. We succeeded – as was seen – in discussing it in the pleno of the four commissions. We succeeded in having the Cámara de Diputados (Argentina’s lower house) vote in favour of the bill. And we managed to make it to the Senate, where it was rejected by a few votes. If we thought about the scenario that we had ahead of us in February of this year, I think no one would have anticipated that we would have made it this far. The perspective was much worse. So from this point of view, it was an indubitable success.

Now, when we look at what still keeps happening in practice, and we realize that we still have an illegal, unjust situation that doesn’t resolve the problem, then clearly we are still faced with a status quo that we haven’t managed to improve. Just today, we found out about another woman who died because of a clandestine abortion. These are the things that every day demand we keep thinking about alternatives to solve the problem.

Why do you think the bill made it this far this year? What changed?

Austin: For me, it was a combination of factors. The first is related to the growth of the grassroots women’s movement – it’s capacity to bring closer and make massive a demand – a movement that’s been growing fundamentally since Ni Una Menos. The second was a process of cross-party coordination initiated by congresswomen of different political blocs which encountered its first legislative experience with the [2017 Gender] Parity Law. This allowed us to resolve the obstacles we were facing, partly, within our own blocs and to make it to the chamber and turn it into law. That was a learning experience for us… This broke a bit the traditional way in which the majorities are organized in the chamber, which is by partisan blocs… The third element, which is clearly one of the most important ones, was President Mauricio Macri’s decision to allow and enable the debate in Congress – to not condition his party’s lawmakers, and to allow them to vote according to their own beliefs, with freedom of conscience, rather than follow a party line. I think this might be the big difference with regard to why over the past 12 years the debate had been blocked, fundamentally because the previous president [Cristina Kirchner] was against the initiative and didn’t want the topic to be debated in Congress.

Did you expect the Catholic Church to weigh in so heavily on the debate, particularly in the Senate?

Austin: The problem with this is that the church’s influence varies greatly throughout the country. It holds less sway in big cities, but is much more influential in the provinces – especially in the north and west. Clearly, it made a difference. When the bill was being debated in the lower house, the church maybe was playing a stealthier game – without as much visibility. In the debate in the Senate, the church took centre-stage. Priests and bishops were heading rallies, some of which were massive. The Church held a mass the day of the vote in the Senate. They played a leading role that showed that despite all their efforts to shore up [their opposition] with other arguments,  the main reason sustaining rejection has a religious component, with the church’s influence. This has awoken different reactions – it’s stirred a movement that has gathered strength in Argentina: the demand for the State’s secularity, and the separation of the Church from the State.

What do you say to anti-abortion activists who say that the State should work to “defend both lives”?

Austin: I’d tell them that the consequence is out in the open. Since the Senate rejected the bill, not only have two lives not been saved, but what they’ve done is for things to remain the way they have been. How they are is the worst of all possible words because since the Senate’s rejection to this day, we have two dead women [34-year-old “Liz” (El Clarín, in Spanish) and 30-year-old Romina Fernandez (La Nación, in Spanish)] and another one who is fighting for her life in an Argentinian province. For this, the State is responsible… It makes us, and it makes them, responsible for these preventable deaths. Finally, this is about trying to put oneself in the place of these other women who for different reasons are making difficult decisions. And even though they want to impose a moral mandate of what the answer should be, what they should learn to respect is the decision of other people, other women. I think the whole discussion boils down to this… The question is: the person who decides to interrupt a pregnancy – do we turn our backs on them, threaten them with jail, and drive them into clandestinity? Or do we allow them to make a decision in dignified conditions? What is left manifest is that their motto of ‘Let’s save both lives’ is nothing more than an empty slogan that crumbles when faced with reality.

More generally, are we seeing the rise of feminist politics in Argentina. What do you think that says about Argentinian society?

Austin: I don’t think we’re seeing a concrete political block. What I think is the most important fact is transversality: the possibility for women of different parties and from different spaces…  to articulate common strategies to fulfil an objective. In that sense, I think feminism has taken a huge step. It’s managed to find a vehicle through which to channel its demands and claims into concrete proposals… This is disruptive for Argentinian politics. To see emerge a player that not only has the potential to apply pressure, but that can demand and search the formation of majorities to convert these rights into laws. This opens a huge chapter that will hopefully lead our country to have a wider recognition of women’s rights than what we have today, but most importantly, a basic enforcement of these rights. We have a tradition of sanctioning good laws that are difficult to implement in practice.

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