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Argentina on Wednesday voted to legalize abortion, making it the first major Latin American country to take the step. María Victoria Murillo, director of the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia University, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss what the historic vote means for Argentina and the region.
Early this morning, Argentina became the first major Latin American country to legalize abortion. It was a dramatic victory for grassroots groups that have been organizing for years.
But it was a major loss for the Catholic Church, and a personal one for the pope.
As Nick Schifrin reports, this vote could ripple across the region.
Overnight, there was no social distancing, only jubilation. Members of Argentina's pro-abortion rights Green Wave movement celebrated in a sea of green, the color that symbolizes the pro-choice campaign and women's rights across the region.
Lola (through translator):
This decision changes everything for millions of women. It is not a question of ethics. It is a question of public health. And now thousands of lives will be saved.
And as you see the green scarf, this one that I have here, which is the symbol of abortion in our country.
Mariela Belski is the Argentina executive director of Amnesty International, which campaigned for the law.
It means that we have a more democratic country. My daughter is going to have a different country, a country that allow her to decide what to do with her body.
The right to autonomy, for us, is so important. And, in this country, until now, it has not been respected.
The bill decriminalizes abortion for any reason in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. After 14 weeks, abortion will continue to be legal only in cases of rape or danger to the mother's life.
Argentina's the largest country in Latin America to take this step. Only Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana and parts of Mexico allow early term abortions on demand.
Belski says the fight for abortion rights is borderless and will expand.
You have you will see this in Peru, in Mexico, in Chile. All the women's movement in this region are using this scarf as the icon for the fighting of abortion.
But, last night, Buenos Aires was a tale of two cities. Many here opposed the bill. After the vote, they were silent and teary.
Ana Laura Esnaola (through translator):
This hasn't ended here. We continue every day fighting for the women who need it most. I am such a feminist that I defend women starting in the womb.
The opposition was supported by the Catholic Church and the pope himself.
Francis was born Jorge Bergoglio in Buenos Aires. Last month, the first Southern Hemisphere pope sent a letter to his Argentine supporters, asking: "Is it fair to eliminate a human life to solve a problem? Is it fair to hire a hit man to solve a problem?"
Yesterday, just before the vote he tweeted: "The son of God was born an outcast, in order to tell us that every outcast is a child of God."
The campaign against the bill united Argentina's evangelical and Catholic Churches, which usually compete.
Fabian Barrera (through translator):
This law goes against common sense, against natural law, against reason. It would be a subjugation of the national constitution that defends and understands that the rights of the children begin from the first moment of conception.
Activists say the bill's passage will protect women.
Since 1983, several thousand women have died from unsafe clandestine abortions. And every year, 38,000 women are hospitalized because of dangerous procedures. But advocates fear ongoing opposition to the law means enforcement will be a challenge.
Today, we win a battle, but we have to start another very difficult battle, which is the implementation of this law. And the fight is going to be harder.
To discuss what this vote means for Argentina and the region, I'm joined by professor Maria Victoria Murillo, the director of the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia university.
Professor Murillo, welcome to the "NewsHour."
Why does Argentina's vote have an outsized influence of the region?
Maria Victoria Murillo:
Thanks for the invitation.
Argentina has already led the region in other instances of expansion of civil liberties and legal rights. And those have been moving through the region. In 1991, Argentina was the first country in the region to pass a law to have women in Parliament, to have a third of the positions in Congress filled by women.
And pretty much, all the countries of the region followed suit. Argentina also was the first country in the region, in 2010, to approve same-sex marriage. And many other countries have followed suit.
Argentina, in 2012, again, was the first country in the region to approve a gender identity law that doesn't even require any medical intervention for people to change their gender identity. And that has not moved so fast, but, again, Argentina has always been an example for the region in the expansion of these types of rights.
And so, as Argentina has been a bellwether for the region, for marriage and gender, could we see similar votes on abortion following Argentina's vote?
I think that might be the case.
We already see some legalizations. Chile last year liberalized the resource for legal abortion. There is already the city of Mexico, the state of Oaxaca in Mexico that have liberalized abortion.
So, I think we see this movement happening. And I think this — the example of Argentina is going to embolden the feminist movement around the region to try to gain more rights.
The Catholic Church, of course, has long been dominant in Argentina and the region.
What does it say about the church's influence, and, frankly, the pope's influence that this vote went directly against him and the church?
I mean, it is interesting, in the sense that the pope is Argentinean, and the pope made a call on the vote on the — on the morning of yesterday, before the Senate vote, and didn't change the result.
I think that that means that there is not a strong influence of the church, and also evangelical churches. And we are going to see a backlash against this expansion of rights. But I don't think that it is going to slow down a process of secularization that we also see happening in many countries of the region, and particular in those in the southern corner, in Argentina, in Uruguay, and Chile.
We heard at the end of the piece concerns about implementation. Could certain Argentinean provinces actually resist this law?
So I can see the provinces of the Northern Argentina resisting the law, like they have resisted sexual education implementation.
But that certainly is going to be — go to the courts. And the courts in Argentina have shown to be pretty strong on defending this right.
As for the changes inside Argentina, this vote failed in 2018. What was the single most important change since then that led to a different outcome overnight?
I think the mobilization of women that resulted from the change made the president commit to this reform, which had not been the case in 2018.
And the president and the party of the president make a strong effort to get the votes. It was easier to get it passed in those conditions. And those included some concessions that had not been given in the 2018 vote.
Professor Maria Victoria Murillo, thank you very much.
Thanks to you.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Layla Quran is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour. She was previously a foreign affairs reporter and producer.
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