Camping Outside Congress During Argentina's Abortion Vote

Early Thursday morning, Argentina's Senate voted against legalizing abortion. I spent the 10 hours before standing in the cold with fellow activists hoping for a different outcome.

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Aug 10 2018, 4:42pm

All photos by the author

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Argentina.

It was around 10 AM when I headed out on foot along Callao Avenue, towards Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Vendors were setting up their street stands and the smell of sausages filled the air. Some people had organized their belongings on the ground in preparation for the demonstration. They threw glitter and talked among themselves, helping each other to set up stands and lending sweaters for the cold. The forecast today said it would be 41°F and we all had to take extra precautions. There was a shortage of scarves, but green handkerchiefs? There were more than enough of those.

Social, political, cultural, human rights, and religious organizations had started congregating along the periphery of the plaza. There were as many groups in favor of the legalization of abortion in Argentina as there were in opposition. They shared hot mate, took photos, and looked at their adversaries as the sun rose on an otherwise normal Wednesday.

At that point, we were really just revving our motors in anticipation of a large mobilization. It was around 11 AM that we began to see the first discussions take place inside the Senate. That's when people started to speculate what was happening, and shortly thereafter, a list of the senators who'd declared themselves undecided along with their phone numbers circulated through the crowd. "We won’t be violent," said one of the members of our group. "We’re just going to tell them what they have to do: 'Honorable Senator, don’t let women continue to die from underground abortions. Help us to make free choices about our own bodies.'"

The afternoon was filled with conversations, but every exchange focused on the same thing: The law must pass. Strangers asked the same questions over and over again as the minutes went by: "Who’s talking now? I can’t hear them!" and "Why is the stage so far away?" I ran towards a loudspeaker close to the Jumbotron, which broadcasted the session in real time. My compatriots were in there, but I personally preferred the street. I couldn’t even imagine what was happening inside; I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Bribes, promises, murmurs, and rumors all came bubbling to the surface over the course of more than 10 hours of media coverage.

By 7 PM it was raining. We moved around, seeking shelter under the roofs and awnings of shops and drank in parking lots, praying that our cell phone batteries would hold out a few more hours. There was a mixed crowd of activists on both sides of the debate on Corrientes Avenue. We heard anti-abortion arguments of all stripes: stories about babies and orphans and adoptions, as well as comments that advocates for reproductive rights were "assassins." There were religious protests and a wave of orange handkerchiefs that represented the separation of church and state. Priests, nuns, and evangelical pastors were all there to argue that God is "in favor of both lives."

"Which two lives?" asked a girl with a green handkerchief, arguing loudly with a younger girl who wore a blue bandana. "When you say ‘two lives,’ to what are you referring exactly, knowing that a woman could die—the supposed future mother—in the intent to abort? Seriously, I’m asking you: What two lives? What’s dying is an embryo. This conversation doesn’t even make sense.” The teen with the blue bandana didn’t respond. A crowd, peaceful but noisy, had formed around the two.

Legal abortion or underground abortion: that’s the issue here. According to the World Health Organization, 56 million induced abortions occurred worldwide each year between 2010 and 2014. Of that number, an estimated 25 million were conducted in unsafe conditions; eight million of that 25 occurred in dangerous conditions. These numbers propelled thousands to don green bandanas and take to the streets of Buenos Aires on August 8, hoping for a favorable outcome to legalize safe abortions in our country.

As the rain fell, we decided to return to our original spot in the plaza. It was 11 PM and Congress was still in session. As the hours dragged on, we knew we were looking at the building that would inevitably turn its back on us, knowing that inside that place, officials were tackling a public health issue that implicated all of us who were there, all of us who were capable of giving birth.

We passed around a bottle of wine and shared cigarettes that were soon extinguished by the rain. Our fingers had begun to ache from the chill. We could hear protest chants in the background, near the Congressional building: "I want to abort, in humane conditions and in a hospital, with Misoprostol, whatever the intervention, it’s my choice..." Questions kept echoing, many of them without answers: "How’s it going?” and "When are they going to vote?"

The final hour was interminable, listening to the fallacious arguments of the senators who took to the podium wearing their blue bandanas. People wearing green glitter waited to hear those who would speak in favor of legal abortion. "It’s our time; we’re making history," a mother told her daughter, standing underneath a green umbrella.

Minutes before the Senate held its vote, there was an atmosphere of anxiety and exhaustion. We speculated that the outcome would be negative, yes, but there were rumors, photos that were shared in WhatsApp group chats, that led us to believe that things could change. That wasn’t the case. We lifted our heads and saw 38 votes against, 31 for, two abstentions, and one absence.

“Two abstentions?!” a friend shouted. "Cowards!" he cried in the direction of the screen.

Soon, the crowd in the plaza dispersed. There were hugs and tears among all the people who had held out in the cold. That morning, the Argentina's president, Mauricio Macri, had tweeted: "It doesn’t matter what the result is; today, democracy will win." That’s easy for a man with power to say. A man who will never feel in his own body the consequences of that decision.

It matters. Of course it matters. It was 3 AM and we continued celebrating the beginning of a movement that will soon push this discussion back onto the public agenda. We shared lists with the names of senators who voted and how they voted so we could consider their decision in future elections. We also shared fliers with the names of feminist doctors, names of lawyers, and instructions about how to use Misoprostol. Yes, it mattered: we made history.

This legislature voted in favor of underground abortions. I’ll bet that young woman with the blue handkerchief is jumping up and down, celebrating back alley abortions. And I’ll be the other girl, the one with the green bandana, who keeps hoping that she won’t be punished for being pregnant and asking for her rights. She won’t have to wait long. Not long at all.

Follow Paloma Navarro Nicoletti on Twitter.