The Handmaid’s Tale author has spoken out in support of women in Argentina, which just voted against legalising abortion.
Early in the morning on Thursday (9 August), Argentina’s senate rejected a bill that would have legalised abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. As a result, abortion is still banned in almost all circumstances in the South American country, with women only able to terminate a pregnancy if it resulted from rape, if their health is in danger, or if they themselves have a mental disability.
The campaign for improved abortion rights in Argentina had become impassioned and fraught in recent months, with thousands of activists on both sides marching in cities across the country. In the run-up to the Senate vote, pro-choice solidarity demonstrations took place in Dublin, Berlin, Rome, Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro and other cities around the world.
As the Senate vote took place, hundreds of thousands of women dressed in green (the colour of the Argentinian pro-choice movement) poured through the streets of Buenos Aires. Once it had been announced that abortion would not be legalised, tensions flared: women wept in the streets, and protestors started fires and threw bottles at police in riot gear.
One person who has been following the Argentinian abortion debate closely is Margaret Atwood. The author has a long history of supporting women’s reproductive freedom – and she based some aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale on how women were treated in Argentina in the Seventies and early Eighties.
From 1976 to 1983, Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship, after former President Isabel Perón was toppled in a right-wing coup. Under the dictatorship, some 30,000 people were kidnapped and “disappeared”. However, women who were pregnant when kidnapped were not killed right away.
Instead, they were kept in captivity until they gave birth – at which point they too were murdered. Their children were then given to military families to raise as their own.
In an op-ed written in support of Argentine women and published on the Argentinian website UNO Santa Fe, Atwood compared the country’s current abortion laws to slavery.
“No one is forcing women to have abortions,” she wrote. “No one either should force them to undergo childbirth. Enforce childbirth if you wish, Argentina, but at least call that enforcing what it is.
“It is slavery: the claim to own and control another’s body, and to profit by that body.”
Atwood argued that the abortion debate should not be framed as a contest between those who approve of abortion and those who condemn it. “Nobody likes abortion, even when safe and legal,” she wrote. “It’s not what any woman would choose for a happy time on a Saturday night.”
Instead, Atwood said that the abortion question should be framed by asking: “What kind of country do you want to live in? One in which every individual is free to make decisions concerning his or her health and body, or one in which half the population is free and the other half is enslaved?
“Women who cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have babies are enslaved, because the State claims ownership of their bodies and the right to dictate the use to which their bodies must be put,” she continued.
If the Argentinian state insisted on “enforced childbirth”, Atwood said, it should also “pay for prenatal care, for the birth itself, for postnatal care, and – for babies that are not sold off to richer families — for the cost of bringing up the child”. It’s a powerful argument, and we recommend reading Atwood’s essay in full.
Despite the devastating result of the vote, pro-choice activists in Argentina have vowed to keep fighting for reproductive rights until abortion is legalised.
“It will happen because that’s the world – to increase rights,” Celia Szusterman, trustee of the UK board of women’s development organisation Pro-Mujer, told CNN. “And this is one of the fundamental rights that is still not available to women in Latin America.”
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