With Milei leading Argentina’s presidential race, abortion is on the line

Libertarian candidate and frontrunner Javier Milei has pledged to hold a referendum to repeal abortion access if elected.

Javier Milei speaks into a microphone and waves. Behind him, a screen displays a giant picture of his face.
The popularity of presidential candidate Javier Milei has made abortion access a prominent issue in the 2023 race [File: Agustin Marcarian/Reuters]

Buenos Aires, Argentina – In Argentina, it can be hard to focus on anything but economics during an election year.

With an annual inflation rate that has eclipsed 138 percent and a currency that has plunged in value, the dire financial outlook has once again dominated this year’s presidential campaign.

But as voters head to the polls on October 22, social issues are increasingly taking centre stage, in large part due to the popularity of far-right libertarian candidate Javier Milei.

Milei, a 52-year-old economist, unexpectedly took the lead in the presidential race in August, when he gained more votes than any other contender in Argentina’s open primary.

His campaign platform includes a wide swath of changes that would overhaul public education and public healthcare. But Milei has zeroed in on abortion as a trademark issue.

Though Argentina is a predominantly Catholic country, the question of abortion access has seized the national spotlight in recent years. In 2020, Congress legalised the procedure up to the 14th week of pregnancy, permitting it at later stages as well in cases of rape or risk to the mother’s health.

It was a major victory for Argentina’s feminist movement, one that blazed a trail for activists in other Latin American countries. Since then, courts in Mexico and Colombia have decriminalised abortion, though other countries, such as Honduras, have hardened their restrictions.

For his part, Milei has expressed staunch opposition to the procedure. If elected, he has pledged to hold a referendum to determine whether abortion will remain legal.

“Abortion is a murder aggravated by the bond [between mother and child] and the difference in strength,” he told American broadcaster Tucker Carlson in an interview streamed and viewed more than 400 million times on the social media platform X.

During a campaign rally, Javier Milei lifts both arms in the air, in a gesture of seeming ecstasy. Confetti appears to rain down in the darkened room, filled with supporters.
Candidate Javier Milei has taken the lead in voter polls in the lead-up to the October 22 general elections [File: Agustin Marcarian/Reuters]

Milei, who leads the party La Libertad Avanza, alleged in an earlier interview that the conditions under which the 2020 abortion law was established were “not clean”. He did not explain further.

Abortion rights activists, meanwhile, maintain that reversing the law would be unconstitutional.

But with Milei continuing to post high poll numbers, the potential for his imminent election has sparked several demonstrations in support of abortion rights, including one outside Argentina’s Congress.

“Evidently, we find ourselves facing an increase in anti-gender discourse that seeks to delegitimise the victories of the women’s and LGBTQ movements and threaten our rights,” said Mariela Bielski, head of Amnesty International in Argentina. “It’s not a new phenomenon, but it has intensified and gotten more sophisticated.”

Milei, the current frontrunner, has seen a boost in popularity from anti-abortion groups, and a survey last month estimated that more than 63 percent of his supporters identified as male.

But he stands alone in championing an abortion referendum. Neither of his two leading rivals — centre-left Economy Minister Sergio Massa and right-wing candidate Patricia Bullrich, a former security minister — have indicated they would reopen the abortion debate.

Yet, a July survey from the University of Buenos Aires signalled that Argentinian society remains starkly divided over the issue. An estimated 43 percent of respondents opposed the abortion legalisation law, while 56 percent showed some level of support, even if it was small.

“This candidate is underestimating feminism as a political power,” said Rosana Fanjul, an activist and member of the National Campaign to Legalize Abortion, which spearheaded the current law.

While Fanjul believes abortion access will “be continually attacked by misogynists”, she is confident the law will stand. “I don’t see how it could be revoked.”

A crowd of demonstrators are on a leafy street in Buenos Aires. Some carry red signs. Another holds a green dinosaur with the message, "The dinosaurs will disappear." And in the middle, a woman holds up a caricature of Javier Milei.
A woman, centre, holds up a sign depicting libertarian candidate Javier Milei in a protest to mark International Safe Abortion Day on September 28 [File: Mariana Nedelcu/Reuters]

Government statistics indicate that the number of abortions at public health facilities has risen since the procedure was legalised. A total of 73,487 abortions were recorded in the year after the 2020 law was passed. In 2022, that number reached 96,664.

The number of public health institutions offering the procedure has likewise climbed, from about 900 in 2020 to more than 1,700 last year.

That level of access has made Argentina a destination for those seeking an abortion, even from abroad — something Milei’s running mate Victoria Villarruel referenced in interviews.

“I don’t think that the Argentine population should be responsible for aborting its citizens, on top of all the foreigners who come to the country to seek out the procedure,” Villarruel told the television channel Canal 7 in August.

But abortion’s legalisation did not happen overnight in Argentina. The movement gained steam in the late 1980s, and by the 2000s, a campaign emerged to draft proposed legislation, although its efforts largely fell on deaf ears.

It was not until 2018 that a major debate ensued. Then-President Mauricio Macri, himself an abortion opponent, gave the go-ahead for a vote on the issue, and months of public hearings and primetime coverage followed, dragging a topic long considered taboo into the mainstream.

Congress’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, voted to legalise abortion that year. But the more conservative upper chamber, the Senate, ultimately blocked the legislation.

It was not until 2020 that the issue returned to Congress, following the election of pro-abortion President Alberto Fernandez. With pressure still strong from the women’s movement, abortion legalisation passed both chambers.

“It took all the necessary steps in order to become law,” Melisa Garcia, a lawyer and founder of the Association of Feminist Lawyers in Argentina, said of the legalisation effort.

She opposes Milei’s proposal to revoke the abortion law via referendum. “The only thing it generates is instability.”

From 1921 until 2020, abortion had been mostly illegal, except in cases like rape or when the mother’s life was at risk. During that time, a government study estimated between 350,000 and 500,000 clandestine abortions happened each year.

Advocates say those illegal procedures came with few safeguards and high risks, particularly for low-income patients.

Since legalisation, however, maternal mortality attributed to abortion in Argentina has dropped from 23 cases in 2020 to 13 in 2021, according to Bielski, the Amnesty International advocate.

“The goal is for maternal mortality due to abortion to be zero, which is why it is necessary to continue expanding the health teams that guarantee the practice,” she said. “Once a certain right has been recognised, you don’t go backwards.”

Nevertheless, abortion access has remained relatively scarce in remote communities and provinces that have declared themselves “pro-life”, like Corrientes in the northeast.

Legal challenges have also been launched against the existing law. One doctor in the northern province of Salta was even charged after providing a legal abortion, in a case that was eventually dropped.

Garcia, the lawyer, said the anti-abortion forces should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, she questions the legality of Milei’s proposed referendum.

“The whole thing he is proposing is unconstitutional,” she said. “Now, that doesn’t mean that he’s not going to attempt it. But I do think that we have a lot of tools to show that it’s not right, and if he tries it, it will once again bring us out onto the streets.”

A large group of protesters hold above their heads green bandanas, a symbol of abortion rights.
Protesters stretch green bandanas above their heads on International Safe Abortion Day in Buenos Aires to show support for abortion access [File: Mariana Nedelcu/Reuters]

Mariana Maurer, a human rights lawyer in the Ministry of Defence, was among those demonstrating in Buenos Aires to protect abortion access on International Safe Abortion Day in September.

With her 10-year-old daughter Amanda hanging on her back, Maurer, 46, joined hundreds of supporters in front of Congress. She supports Massa in the upcoming race.

“We’re living a very complicated moment, in which all of the rights that we’ve won are at risk,” Maurer said. “The mobilisation of all the feminist movements is stronger all the time, not just in Argentina but throughout the region and the world.”

Above her head, she stretched out a green handkerchief — a symbol for abortion rights that originated in Argentina.

“We have to be visible, and our voices have to be present,” she added. “They can’t walk all over us.”

Source: Al Jazeera