When thinking about political activism in urban settings, feminist strategies for increasing access to safe abortion provide important insights into how different kinds of spaces can be used for political action — particularly when it comes to issues that cannot be fully addressed through public protest. Discussing strategies of abortion activism in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Lea Happ illustrates why we have to think about private and digital spaces as important for political action.
Abortion Activism in Buenos Aires
In what has been celebrated as a landmark shift towards reproductive justice, Argentina legalised abortion in December 2020. This was preceded by persistent feminist mobilisation over several decades and intensified efforts since the foundation of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion in 2005. As the federal capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires has been a key location for feminist activism over the years. To effectively mobilise, activists have responded to abortion activism’s specific nature by using a wide range of strategies and spaces within the city.
When thinking about the use of urban space for political activism, abortion is an emblematic case of the issues feminists face when mobilising for gender-specific issues. It illustrates a central challenge for feminist activists, in that it falls on the wrong side of the divide between public and private. The same is true for many other issues feminists engage with, from sexual education to childcare.
Is Political Action Confined to Public Space?
Abortion activism in Buenos Aires and elsewhere continues to be heavily stigmatised, leading it to be invisibilised as a political issue. Democratic protest is still first and foremost thought of as happening in public spaces, in the form of mass protests, strikes, and blockades. For feminist mobilisation, this is only true for their public-facing parts. Meanwhile, other less visible or prima facie political, but equally crucial activist strategies might be missed when political action is understood as public dissent. Therefore, it is important to think beyond public spaces when considering how groups that experience discrimination make political claims in cities. This has become particularly urgent during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, in which the restricted use of public spaces forced feminist activists to rethink political action and devise alternative ‘publics’.
With the above being said, the mass demonstrations in favour of the legalisation of abortion were essential for achieving legalisation. Especially since 2018, when a bill for the legalisation of abortion was first passed by the Chamber of Deputies but later rejected by the Senate, the immense turn-out at protests moved the issue to the front of the political agenda: with an estimated two million protestors in Buenos Aires on August 8th, 2018 raising awareness among political representatives and public alike. The use of the green kerchief — tied around the neck, wrist, or attached to backpacks — as a symbol for the struggle for legal abortion gave the issue visibility in everyday life, outside of strikes and demonstrations.
Mass protests, persistent public visibilisation, as well as disruptive public interventions, such as Operación Araña, during which feminist activists took over Buenos Aires’ subway system, all constitute a refusal to leave the issue behind the closed doors of the private realm of women’s intimate life. They also exercised a high amount of sustained pressure on legislators, which was a crucial enabler for legalising abortion.
When Legal Entitlement is Not Enough: The Concept of Reproductive Justice
However, applying the framework of reproductive justice, as developed in 1994 by SisterSong, a collective of Black women in the United States, demonstrates the insufficiency of the legal entitlement to abortion. Focusing on ‘access, not choice’, thus drawing our attention to issues such as geographical and institutional barriers, obstetric violence, and racial and class-based discrimination, the reproductive justice framework tells us not to expect legalisation to be the end of the story. Rather, access will continue to be an issue, particularly for those marginalised on the basis of race, class, gender, or sexuality.
This is illustrated by a recently published report by Socorristas en Red, an activist group supporting abortion seekers through information, advocacy, and accompaniment. Their statistics show that of over 5,500 people who sought their support in the first half of 2021 — after the legalisation of abortion — only 22 per cent opted for an abortion within the healthcare system, whilst 64 per cent chose to have a ‘self-managed’ medical abortion at home. This points us to the continued importance of another form of activism, which takes place in a space commonly considered private and apolitical: the home.
Refusing to Accept Restrictions
Feminist activism that enables people to have safe abortions outside the healthcare system has a long history in Argentina. It has become particularly prominent over the last two decades as medical and communication technologies have made it increasingly easy for activists to connect and safe to have abortions outside the healthcare system. Once contacted, activists will accompany the pregnant person in her decision-making, medication procurement, and terminating the pregnancy itself. Information about this is fairly easily accessible online, and activist groups promote their work through high profile social media campaigns. Despite this activism taking place in the private space of the home and being an intimate process in that it often only involves two people, it is understood by activists and abortion seekers alike as a deeply political act of refusing to accept legal and practical restrictions of abortion access.
Digital and Private Spaces for Abortion Activism in Buenos Aires
Even prior to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, social media and messaging apps were important tools for activists to connect to abortion seekers, share educational material, as well as to invoke a sense of feminist community among those involved. Then already, digital and private spaces were used to supplement activism taking place in physical public spaces — from streets to public transport. Especially due to their role as a vehicle for community-building, it makes sense to think of them as hybrid spaces constituting alternative ‘publics’ in which activists pursue their struggle for reproductive justice. With COVID-19, reliance on digital spaces has increased even further. When it has been no longer possible to even carry out the one-on-one support outlined above, activists have wholly relied on digital platforms for their work, thus divorcing political space entirely from traditional, physical sites of action.
By politicising private and digital spaces, feminists have been able to build activist communities in places where physical mobilising is either insufficient for addressing certain facets of an issue or is restricted by external circumstances like COVID-19. As the case of abortion activism in Buenos Aires and in Argentina in general illustrates, it is important to pay attention to the political use of spaces that lie beyond those in which we typically expect political action to appear when seeking to understand struggles for social justice in all their complexity.