The Argentine women who fought for legal abortion – and won
Pioneering women who spent decades fighting for abortion rights in Argentina look back at their victorious struggle.
Buenos Aires, Argentina – The road to legalising abortion in Argentina is paved with the sweat, tears and devotion of women who spent much of their lives fighting for change.
They are revered as “las historicas” – the pioneering activists, lawyers and doctors who occupied the lonely space on street corners in the 1990s, waving placards that demanded women have the right to determine the fate of their bodies.
On Wednesday, the Argentine Senate voted 38 to 29 in favour of legalising elective abortion until the 14th week, with one abstention.
Some of those warriors did not get the chance to see their labour bear fruit: like Dora Coledesky, an activist, lawyer, and longtime champion for women’s rights who is signalled out as the main driver behind the campaign in its early days.
She passed away in 2009, and her granddaughter Rosana Fanjul is a key member of the legalisation campaign.
Those who were able to witness history are now legends to the “marea verde” – or green wave, as the young pro-choice masses are known. They have the lessons of struggle imprinted on their bodies. Their collective experience, the alliances they fostered and the manner in which they built consensus offer clues into how to sew a feminist revolution.
“My children when they were younger would say, the only thing you talk about is abortion. Can’t you talk about something else?” recalled Alicia Cacopardo, 83, laughing. “Well, we got here.”
The retired doctor formed part of the commission for the right to abortion in 1988.
She had just moved her practice out of a hospital in Buenos Aires and into neighbourhoods where she saw first hand the way illegality hit poor women harder. “The clandestine circuit worked perfectly in Argentina, paying for everything. That difference was so incredible,” she said.
Cacopardo would attend twice a month gatherings outside El Molino, a famous and since shuttered coffee shop within eyeshot of the National Congress in Buenos Aires. There, women would hand out pamphlets about their proposal and how the issue was treated by other countries.
“There were those who were in favour and those against, and debates would break out there on the street corner. Of course, it was nothing like the green wave that you see now, but there were a lot of people who supported us,” said Cacopardo.
The street is without question a protagonist in the Argentine feminist struggle.
The women who searched for their disappeared children and grandchildren during the last military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, known as Las Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, famously held weekly marches in front of the government house, demanding answers from a regime that silenced its critics.
The symbol of their struggle was a white scarf worn around their heads; for the legal abortion campaign, the symbolic scarf has turned green.
“Our mobilisation is our presence,” said Nina Brugo, 77, a longtime labour lawyer and member of the campaign to legalise abortion. “A fundamental point is to take to the street.”
So too have been the National Gatherings of Women held every year since 1986 in a different city in Argentina. They feature 70 odd workshops on a rainbow of topics. Those who cannot afford somewhere to stay are given space to camp, or put up in schools. Some 600,000 people attended the last one in the city of La Plata in 2019.
“That’s where we formed all the networks, all the alliances, because women came from all walks of life and across the country,” said Brugo. “There’s someone who doesn’t know how to read next to someone who has a doctorate – their voices have the same value in the workshops. That has been marvellous.”
It was at one of the gatherings, in the coastal city of San Bernardo in 1990, that Brugo was approached by Coledesky, who was gathering signatures in favour of legal abortion.
Brugo had accompanied women who had aborted but at that time she did not see it as a right yet. At that same gathering, she listened closely to the experiences shared by Brazilian women who proposed September 28 as a day for legal abortion in Latin America.
On that date in 1871, Brazil declared that all children born to enslaved people were free. “They wanted to equalise the freedom of the womb with the right to abortion,” Brugo said. “That impacted me.” After that, she sought out Coledesky and added her signature to the cause.
Marta Alanis started to feel and call herself a feminist around 1991, when she met Brazilian feminist theologian Ivon Gebara and the social justice group Catholics for the Right to Decide in Uruguay.
Alanis went on to co-found the Argentine chapter and occupy a central role in the abortion legalisation campaign. “Not all women were in favour of the right to abortion in the gatherings of women – the debate was there,” recalled Alanis.
“I remember that in the year 1997, in the national gathering in San Juan, that was the first time Catholic women were sent by the church leadership to block the debate and it generated a great unease,” she said.
In 2003, they held the first assembly on the right to abortion in order “to define strategies”.
When the women who had been sent by the church arrived, they were told that if they did not have strategies to contribute they were not welcome.
That 2003 gathering is where the green scarf was born. In 2005, the campaign to legalise abortion was officially launched. It presented its first project, with the signature of one legislator, in 2007, and eight times after that.
It was debated by the National Congress for the first time in 2018, marking a turning point for a society that had spent so long looking the other way. It passed the lower house of deputies, but failed in the Senate that time – a devastating loss, but one which did not deter, and if anything fuelled, the conviction to be back.
“The campaign, like all things that are human, has had tensions,” said Alanis.
“But we have never split. And that speaks to a form of building collectively as feminists. It’s building in a way that is horizontal, where all the voices have space, and without a hierarchy. It’s very different from a political party or a syndicate.”
It was a cacophony of voices on the night of the Senate vote, as tens of thousands of people – young women, in particular – poured into the square around the National Congress, decked in green. It was a far cry from the clutch of women who stood outside El Molino, all those years ago.
“The square has become for me a place of great emotion,” said Nelly Minyersky, 91, a lawyer and fixture in the movement. She heads up a masters programme at the University of Buenos Aires law school. “Although it’s a great mystery to me, I’ve turned into someone that young people really love,” she said.
Knowing that, and considering the dangers of COVID-19, she stayed away from the square for the final vote, watching it instead from inside the Senate alongside Alanis and Dora Barrancos, a renowned historian and adviser to President Alberto Fernandez.
The three walked arm-in-arm along the side streets of the imposing building, with the festive sound of the street in the distance.
For Minyersky, like for so many of her friends, approval does not mean the work is done. Making sure people know about the law – and making sure it is enforced – are on her to-do list.
“One thing that really fills me with emotion is the way we found such a beautiful reflection in young people,” said Minyersky. “That is a great satisfaction. That the ideas that you generate do not stay in you, but that future generations keep developing and perfecting them. They are taking the baton.”