The massive and impressive 8M women’s march was full of demands for change, but in some ways it was also supportive of at least two issues tentatively included by President Mauricio Macri in his stateof-the-nation speech the previous Thursday – equal pay for women and a vote on the legalisation of abortion, which will be the subject of this editorial.
Abortion is a difficult issue and it will always be one. It is an emotive one too that is often accompanied by anger from those on both sides. It is also one that is unlikely to produce a consensus. (At this point, in the interests of transparency as well as balance, it is worth a brief detour to indicate to the reader that this editorial was composed by two people who come down on opposite sides of the debate.)
Regardless of one’s own personal position, this long overdue debate is as necessary as it is difficult and unsatisfactory. It is extraordinarily difficult, because while most issues revolving around relative truths have merits on both sides, this is a battle between two absolutes – the rights of unborn life versus the rights of women over their own bodies, since carrying either principle to its full consequences makes it impossible to accept the opposite argument. And unsatisfactory because of the statistical chaos (only highly uncertain figures from a decade ago) and the inevitably arbitrary conclusion – how is the average person going to understand why (assuming that dividing-line) a 13-week foetus is disposable while a 15-week foetus is a person?
Yet anything would be better than the current situation, which is unsustainable. With or without a ban, abortion is a grim reality. If prohibition really served as prevention, who would want to change the law? Yet those who would equate abortion with murder remain strangely unconcerned about an almost totally ineffective law – they are quite happy with the hypocrisy of upholding the principle and ignoring reality.
And that reality is first and foremost a public health problem, irrespective of other ethics. The statistics are impossible – abortion being responsible for a third of maternal deaths is perhaps the safest – but the horror stories about backstreet operations abound. And government responsibility here cannot be eluded. A defence minister might have all the respect in the world for the sanctity of human life but his job remains to make contingency planning for conflict, with the possibility of going to war with the inevitable loss of life – by the same token a Health Ministry has to address the medical problems raised by illegal abortions, especially with the poorest most at risk, irrespective of opinions on the rights of the unborn.
Why has this debate taken so long to start? The delaying tactics have basically come from one side. Those who oppose abortion have seen it legalised in much of the world in recent decades and assume that they are fighting a losing battle which they would prefer not to start. But they should not shun debate. Beyond the public health issue, there is a matter of ethics and/or religion, of course. The debate about whether a body is sacred is akin to the question about when a foetus becomes a human being. In both cases, having a Byzantine discussion will lead to same results we had in the past: gridlock, regardless of people’s individual perspectives. As the world moves toward a more liberal stance on most social issues, including legalised abortion, this is an issue that should be on the agenda and debated by civil society on all levels, from Congress, to the streets of Congress, from religious institutions to academia and beyond. The cultural and ethical change that has taken place in recent years, especially regarding women’s and LGBT rights, has altered society profoundly.
Domestic political factors from recent history have also conspired against debate. Cutting a very long story short and looking at the three main presidents since the last dictator Reynaldo Bignone (who died this week) was in office, Raúl Alfonsín was fully absorbed by the legalisation of divorce (1987), Carlos Menem felt obliged to overcompensate his Arabic origins and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner preferred to avoid the contradiction of vetoing such a progressive cause while heading an administration priding itself on being progressive and introduced same-sex marriage.
So why is Macri introducing this debate now? Among those sceptical about his sudden conversion to feminism, the most common theory seems to be that he is seeking a distraction from a faltering economy and nagging inflation. Others suspect him of trying to woo the radical chic away from a declining Kirchnerism. A cynic might also think that he has a win-win situation here – in all likelihood an abortion bill will be frustrated by conservative provincial senators, thus avoiding any risk of alienating traditionalist supporters, but should it prevail, the technocrats who have already trimmed pensions can potentially look forward to lower child benefits and the president can show off some feminist credentials while indicating he is willing to make decisions against his own beliefs.
Yet far more important than the quality of Macri’s motives is the urgency and necessity of this debate. Whether the final decision should belong to 329 parliamentarians or the people as a whole in a referendum is also a very good question with space lacking here for an answer. But above all the debate must start. It is a long time coming. To be continued.