On the victorious struggle of women in Argentina to legalise abortion: What where the greatest difficulties? Which strategies led to success? Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat (Strajk.eu) talks to Argentinian sociologist and feminist activist Victoria Tesoriero.
Victoria Tesoriero was one of the leading activists of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion (Campaña por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito). Launched in 2005, more than 700 organisations – feminists, trade unionists, academics, students and many more – eventually joint forces. After the 2019 general elections, Tesoriero became Undersecretary of Political Affairs in the new Argentinian government.
Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: On 30 December 2020, women in Argentina won a great victory – your country’s Senate passed a law that allows abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy. This is a historic change and a key point for whole Latin America. How did you feel when this change became a reality?
Victoria Tesoriero: Happy! Just so much happy!
I have been an activist for over 20 years. I’m 36 years old and I started being active in the women’s movement when I was thirteen. Twelve years ago I joined the National Campaign for Legal Abortion, and for ten years I am the part of Catholics for Choice group. For the last nine years I have been working in the Campaign section, which was responsible for talks with politicians, cooperations with members of Congress, and convincing them of our ideas. Many women like me and from all walks of life have put in their time and effort to make the right to abortion a reality. The women’s movement in Argentina has a huge historical tradition.
So why did you have to fight for this law for so long?
It takes a long time to change ones mentality and perception of the world. The Catholic Church is a mighty power, 83 percent of our society belong to it. Even the Pope is Argentinian! (laughs) That did not help us. Ten years ago, we would not have been even able to develop a broader discussion about our positions. A woman who had an abortion was considered a murderer and was treated as such by the society. At the same time, practically everyone knew at least one woman who terminated her pregnancy illegally.
You can guess that the underground practices were absolutely widespread.
They were even divided into several levels. Wealthy women went to private clinics, paid about a thousand dollars, and had the procedure in good and safe conditions. For the poor, the only option left was “cheap” clandestine abortions, often performed under very poor conditions.
How did you manage to bring the change?
It may sound trivial, but we simply tried to get as many supporters as possible. We visited trade unions, universities, student and women’s organisations, and local neighborhood clubs. We tried to convince everyone and involve them into the fight for access to abortion. We were looking for contacts with journalists. I remember the times when we had only one ally in this environment. Only one journalist who wanted to write in the serious media about women’s rights! Only in the last five years has the number of editorial offices and collectives interested in this problem increased dramatically. It helped us a lot.
Inevitably, you found yourself surrounded by the people who, as you say, had a very negative attitude towards abortion. How did you convince them?
We had three basic arguments. First, we did not say “My body, my choice.” Not because we thought that it was not true. This is a feminist slogan and we are feminists but we were not going to convince ourselves. We were already convinced! We talked about abortion as a social justice issue. We said: abortion is the matter of public health. We said: abortion is a human right. At the same time, we demanded sexual education so that there won’t be unwanted pregnancies and full access to contraception so that there would be no need for an abortion. And we added: we want legal abortion because we do not want to die.
Another strategy was to involve famous people, famous women, to talk publicly about their abortion experience, or to speak out as experts. These were the voices of doctors, lawyers, but also actresses and journalists. Strong testimonies. Thanks to all of this, our movement grew stronger.
Were there any other factors that contributed to this? Social and political changes in a broader sense?
I think that our activity was the most important. Sadly, it was human tragedies that contributed to the fact that a debate about abortion returned again and again. Like the terrible story of an 11-year-old girl who got pregnant after being raped and our law did not allow her to terminate her pregnancy.
An important moment was the initiative of one of the lesbian collectives, which in 2009 published a guide on how to perform a pharmacological abortion: what pills to take and where to get them. It was a great step forward against the most risky clandestine abortions, It’s just that we wanted something more – we demanded that the state recognize our right to abortion.
Would you agree that women’s rights will not be secured if the fight for them won’t be combined with, for example, the fight against inequalities, the fight for a more just world?
Yes, that is why our fight for the full women rights has always been linked to a very strong socialist movement, to human rights movements, to organisations reminding us of the crimes of the Argentine military dictatorship. We are also in alliance with trade unions and organisations that develop pro-social thinking about the economy. They support us – we support them.
You mentioned the Catholic Church and the catholic majority. How did you convince religious women, catholics with conservative views that abortion can, should be legal?
A distinction must be made between the leaders of our Church and the faithful. Our bishops are, of course, very conservative. But the masses of believers – they are not! And the women? They also had illegal abortions and also found out for themselves what the prohibition meant. In addition, we carefully read the code of canon law and found out that our state law was much stricter.
How did the Church react when this strict law was cancelled?
The Pope said nothing. Neither did our Argentinian episcopate – they were against the changes until it was voted through, but they did not try to mobilize the faithful against abortion once the law was passed.
Our main opponent is not, nor was it in previous years, the Church itself. We are much more concerned about how many ultra-Catholic, ultra-conservative people are in politics, in the judiciary, and in all kinds of ethics committees. We are worried that it is they who will block the implementation of the new law in practice and that women will still find it difficult to perform the procedure. Even if it is now completely legal! Nevertheless, we are prepared for that. We are prepared for it. We have a network of supporters: doctors, medical workers and people in charge of state health institution. We created this network back in the days when we were fighting for the right to abortion, but we reckoned with the fact that we would not enter parliament with our positions for a long time. We will watch closely how the new law is going to be implemented and educate women and girls about their rights.
You have won in the abortion issue. What’s next? How to combat violence against women, which is a real scourge on your continent?
We don’t really know yet what the goal of the next campaign will be (laughs). There are so many things to do! The first things that come to my mind are: the fight against violence against women, the issue of sexual education, encouraging women to be politically active, and supporting, promoting and rewarding all those who work in care sector.
I know it is difficult to give advice from the other side of the world, with all the differences between Argentina and Poland, but I will ask: what can we learn from you? What do you think we can do now when the government, despite hundreds of thousands of women taking the streets, prefers to ignore us and their friendly media calls us aggressors and murderers? What can women do when none of the politicians in parliament – apart from the Social Democrats and some liberals, i.e. the opposition – want to listen to?
This is a terrible situation and we know it well. There was a moment when we already gained some support in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament – it turned out that even in conservative parties you can find feminist women! – but in the Senate nobody wanted to talk with us. And we needed both voices! And it so happened that our activist, a socialist, was an assessor in Congress. She let us in, women from the Catholics for Choice group, and we went door to door, senator to senator, literally! We decided to act in the name of this organisation, because if we were to present ourselves directly as part of a campaign to legalize abortion, they probably wouldnot even want to listen to us. You have to look for strategies and platforms of contact that will enable dialogue. But it is not a complete solution.
And what is the definitive one?
More women in parliament, and more women with feminist views. I have the impression that women feel much more comfortable working in movements, informal organisations, local neighbourhood support groups and so on. But we must also enter the political superstructures, fight for our rights and take positions where the decisions are made. The world of politics as we know it was not created by women or for women, but this cannot discourage or stop us. We will not take the next steps forward if we do not take parliament seats and government positions.
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