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  • Abortion and Human Rights for Women in Argentina
  • Barbara Sutton (bio) and Elizabeth Borland (bio)


Legal abortion is one among several dimensions of a reproductive justice agenda, and yet it continues to be at the center of controversy in many places around the world. While in countries such as the United States abortion is legal but contested,1 in places such as Argentina, abortion is largely illegal, with few exceptions.2 Despite its criminalization, it is estimated that up to 522,000 abortions take place annually in Argentina.3 Abortion is also a leading cause of maternal mortality, and the clandestinity of the practice especially hurts the most destitute women.4 In this context, women's movement and feminist activists in Argentina have long advocated for the legalization of abortion. Their cause gained momentum in the last decade. Unlike the more narrow emphasis on "choice" that has been prevalent in the United States and other contexts,5 and critiqued by scholars and activists advocating for "reproductive justice,"6 abortion rights activists in Argentina have included expansive frames in their discursive repertoire, even as they concentrate on legalizing abortion. One of these expansive frames pertains to the notion of human rights.

The proliferation of human rights discourse as a recognized and shared language across national borders and cultures—for example, as evidenced by international human rights treaties—suggests the need to examine how this frame works in practice and whether it has local resonance in different national contexts. According to Elizabeth Jay Friedman, from a feminist perspective, part of the power of the human rights frame derives from its ability to "provide legitimacy to political demands, given both its political acceptance and its 'machinery,' or instruments for its realization."7 Furthermore, the notion that "women's rights are human rights" was increasingly deployed in the global arena during the 1990s and is still being invoked in prominent activist spaces in different locales, including the 2017 Women's March on Washington.8 Still, [End Page 27] as we shall see, this frame is not without critics, including among feminists who have taken issue with its usefulness both philosophically and in terms of its concrete application in specific national contexts.9 Thus the question emerges: Is the human rights frame useful or viable when it comes to articulating long-standing feminist demands such as abortion rights? If so, in which circumstances? In the case of Argentina, why have abortion rights activists chosen to incorporate the language of human rights as an important component of their discursive repertoire?

Within Argentina, the movement for abortion rights needs to be situated in the context of broader struggles for social justice, democracy, and gender and sexuality rights. In the last two decades several progressive laws were passed in Argentina, including legislation on sexual and reproductive health (2002), comprehensive sex education (2006), ending violence against women (2009), marriage equality (2010), and self-determination of gender identity (2012). These changes followed a historic turning point marked by a severe economic and political crisis in 2001, when a variety of social movements were agitating for new and old demands.10 However, despite legislative progress on matters of sexual and reproductive rights, legalizing abortion has proven more difficult to achieve. This article examines activist efforts to decriminalize and legalize abortion, paying special attention to the strategic use of a human rights frame.

The prominent coalition to demand the legalization and decriminalization of abortion in Argentina is the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion, launched in 2005.11 By its tenth anniversary the Campaign had the support of more than three hundred organizations as well as countless individuals from all walks of life. Groups in the coalition include political parties, labor organizations, academic institutions, human rights groups, and many more. Activists characterize the Campaign as plural (comprising a diversity of individuals, social sectors, and political ideologies), federal (reaching the various regions of the country), self-organized (not directed by any external entity), and democratic (with the main direction of the Campaign determined through plenary meetings and collective discussion). The Campaign's key slogan, which has unified it when tensions and disagreement have arisen, is: "Sex education...