Buenos Aires, Argentina – As Argentine senators laid out their positions ahead of an historic abortion rights vote, the streets surrounding the Congress building in Buenos Aires became a colour-coded battleground for those in favour and those against.
The “blue wave” of activists wearing the light blue of the Argentine flag represented those who believe allowing abortion for any reason up until the 14th week of pregnancy is tantamount to murder. Many also marched with the yellow Vatican flag, showing their support for Argentine-born Pope Francis.
His intense personal campaign to sway the vote against abortion had not gone unnoticed.
“It’s a complicated subject, but I am in favour of life. I am here with my two daughters, and since they were small I have taught them to always say yes to life,” said Mariel, who only gave her first name.
While the debate continued, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires Mario Aurelio Poli, held Mass in the Cathedral to pray to God to illuminate the senators.
On the other side of the Congress building, a larger green wave of the pro-abortion rights movement began filling much of Buenos Aires’ huge 9 de Julio Avenue and the streets leading up to Congress from early morning.
They wore green scarves – the symbol of the right to free, legal, and safe abortion. Many also came with green hair, green makeup and giant green banners.
The outcome of years of campaigning and seven attempts to bring legal abortion before Argentina’s legislature was hanging in the balance, and even under the freezing, pouring rain, they wanted to ensure their voices were heard.
But unlike last month, when the lower house of Congress narrowly voted to approve the legislation to legalise abortion under all circumstances, this time thousands of women and men of all ages were holding a vigil with the knowledge they were almost certain to lose the battle.
“It is incredible that senators from conservative northern provinces, who represent only 10 percent of the population, have enough votes to kill the bill,” said Mariela Belski, executive director of Amnesty International Argentina.
“They do not represent the sentiments of the majority of the Argentine people.”
On the eve of the historic vote, Amnesty International posted a full-page ad in The New York Times. It consisted of a simple coat hanger and the word ADIOS, meaning goodbye, to the common practice of using a metal coat hanger to provoke a self-inflicted miscarriage because abortion is illegal.
Unsafe, illegal abortions are the number one cause of maternal deaths in Argentina.
Many of the activists also carried orange scarves, part of a parallel campaign against the payment of state subsidies to the Catholic Church, which is the harshest critic of abortion, contraception and divorce.
The abortion debate has increased criticism of the Catholic Church in Argentina.
A group of 17-year-old girls sang a jingle: “To the Catholic Church that wants to get into our beds, we say we do what we please with our bodies! Legal abortion now!”
Abortion is permitted in the case of rape, or if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. But very often, especially in the more conservative provinces of Argentina, public hospitals refuse to perform the procedure, according to human rights groups.
Even though the bill was ultimately struck down in the Senate, thousands of pro-abortion rights activists embraced and congratulated each other.
They said after 35 years of being ignored, in a short six months pro-abortion rights advocates managed not only to put the debate on the front page of newspapers but also to get a bill presented and voted on in Congress.
“This was a historic, landmark battle, but the war is not over,” said Sofia Mendez. “Next year we will present another bill. Sooner rather than later the words we carry on our green scarf will become law.”
Mendez added there also must be “integral sex education to decide, contraception on demand to avoid abortion, and legal abortion so as not to die”.