Three weeks ago, Argentina was on the brink of delivering a massive victory to women’s rights advocates there and across Latin America: New President Alberto Fernández, who won election last year, announced in early March that he planned to make legal abortion the first major priority of his presidency.
With strong majorities in Congress and increasing public support behind the effort, Argentina seemed primed to become just the fourth nation in Latin America to legalize abortion ― and the largest country in the region to enshrine the right into law.
Then the novel coronavirus hit Argentina and put a halt to those plans.
Argentina confirmed its first COVID-19 case on March 3, the week Fernández planned to introduce a bill into Congress that would legalize abortion. Four days later, Argentina became the first Latin American country to confirm a coronavirus-related death. There are now more than 500 confirmed cases there, and at least six confirmed deaths.
The outbreak has consumed Argentina and derailed Fernández’s legislative agenda. The new president shut the country’s border to foreigners and mandated a nationwide quarantine until March 31. The Argentine legislature is closed for business, and the future of a bill that activists have pushed for years is increasingly uncertain.
The outcome in Argentina, where abortion is legal only in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life is at risk, may have implications across the Americas. Fernández’s decision to prioritize reproductive rights, while expected, had instilled hope in feminist groups throughout the region that Argentina could provide the sort of breakthrough they’ve long craved in a region where 97% of women live under restrictive abortion laws, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that advocates for expanded abortion and contraception access worldwide.
Among Latin America’s independent nations, only Uruguay, Guyana and Cuba allow unrestricted...