By Lea Happ[1]

Over the past months, as Argentina has been in lockdown due to COVID-19, the feminist network Socorristas en Red has tried to make people’s experience of abortion as safe as possible. The Socorristas, literally translating to ‘lifesavers’, is a feminist network dedicated to improving the safety of criminalised abortions. They frame their work as supporting those who choose to abort in the face of the state abandoning them. This involves informing about access to legal abortion, which is permitted under the three clauses outlined in article 86 of the Argentine Penal Code: the protection of the mother’s life; her physical, mental or social health; or in case of rape. Particularly the social dimension of health has opened up the scope for people to access abortions due to a variety of social factors, but is also most frequently denied by health care professionals. In these instances, the work of Socorristas en Red consists of advising pregnant people about their legal entitlements and how to claim them. Beside this, they support people who do not qualify for an abortion within the healthcare system but choose to abort nonetheless. They accompany them from the initial consultation about how and where to obtain an abortion — most frequently self-managed through the use of misoprostol[2] — and throughout the actual abortion process.

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During the current pandemic, the Socorristas’ work has been further complicated. Normally, much of the Socorristas’ capacity as a force of support and advocacy for people who choose to abort is rooted in their work as an embodied, collective, and affective practice, which counters the stigmatisation of abortion through shame, guilt, and silence. These involve in-person consultations, being physically present during the actual process of the abortion, and giving people who abort access to a community that shares and understands their experience. However, lockdown, with its restrictions on mobility and social gatherings, presented the activist network with the challenge of finding alternative ways of creating structures of support and intimacy. The following piece is a portrait of the crucial work the Socorristas have been doing during a time of increased precariousness for those who choose to abort, and a case for their potential to carve out space for pregnant people’s[3] experience within Argentina’s wider political landscape. By analysing testimonies published by activists during the COVID-19 pandemic, I put forth the argument that activists’ utilisation of online media and digital spaces is postulating women and other people who choose to abort as agentic political subjects, during a pandemic that has prompted the relegation of reproductive issues to the private and secondary.

Feminist Lifesavers

Socorristas en Red was founded in 2012 by members of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion. It is a volunteer-based network of autonomous feminist collectives based across Argentina, both in major cities such as Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata and Córdoba, as well as in the capitals of all provinces and some smaller towns. Its work is embedded within a broad landscape of feminist activists and grassroots organisations advocating for the free access to abortion in Argentina. Since the foundation of the National Campaign in 2003, activists have been explicitly rallying for a reform of Argentina’s restrictive abortion law. Over the last five years, before the backdrop of an increasingly vocal feminist movement, especially the Ni Una Menos movement against gender-based and femicidal violence, the debate over the legalisation of abortion has intensified. In 2018, the marea verde, the uprising in favour of legal change, succeeded in having a corresponding bill accepted by the Chamber of Deputies. However, it was rejected by the Senate after an intense political and public contestation. Within this broader movement, the Socorristas, as well as other local and regional organisations doing similar work, are dedicated to complementing the focus on legal change with concrete action improving the safety of abortion in the interim.

Under normal circumstances, their work crucially contributes to making abortion in Argentina safer. In 2019, the organisation accompanied 12,575 people across the country by informing them about their options, assisting them in acquiring medication and supporting them during their abortions. In 96.9% of the cases they accompany, the treatment worked effectively, and 90.6% did not require medical assistance within the critical 72 hours after inducing an abortion. Thus, their work enables women to emancipate and protect themselves from the obstetric violence they frequently face in encounters with the medical system. Particularly marginalised women facing intersecting forms of oppression benefit from their work, as they are most likely to be harmed in clandestine procedures. Normally, the Socorristas, who support people across all ages and levels of education, are therefore a significant socio-political force for ensuring pregnant people’s rights to healthcare and bodily autonomy. Essential for this work is a sense of solidarity invoked through physical presence and community-based action.

This critically important work has been impossible to conduct during the current pandemic. Legal efforts for legalisation, which seemed to be about to pick up pace in February, have come to a halt as other issues have come to the fore. In early December, the parliamentary debate has at last been officially launched and, at the moment of finalising this piece, it seems likely that the legalisation of voluntary abortions will be passed before the end of the year. Accessing abortions which are already legal has become significantly more complicated as healthcare services have concentrated their resources and efforts on limiting the spread of COVID-19, leaving many pregnant people to believe that “in quarantine, [one] won’t be able to abort”. Lastly, the work of Socorristas en Red and similar organisations, whose support of people who choose to abort nonetheless relies on physical proximity and embodied community, has been severely restricted. This only exacerbates the already increased emotional strain caused by the combination of illegality and isolation people who have aborted in quarantine have experienced. Many of them have aborted while living alone or with family they could not rely on for support, meaning that “fears and doubts [were] stronger [than usually] and [quarantine] meant [they] could not speak about them with anyone”. The Socorristas have sought to adapt to this increased vulnerability by developing new activist tactics and focusing more intensively on providing online information and accompaniment, as well as vocally informing about their work, to counter the sense of isolation usually counteracted by their physical accompaniments.

Responding to crisis, rethinking activism

To call attention to abortion in quarantine as a mundane yet silenced experience, Socorristas en Red has published a collection of testimonies of people they have supported throughout quarantine called Estamos Cerca — “we are near”. The testimonies emphasise that “[they] are many in this situation” of aborting in isolation. Grouped around prevalent sentiments people experience undergoing abortions, they give space to feelings of fears and sadness, hope, embodiment, solidarity, and empowerment. Despite the isolation of quarantine, activists emphasise they “continue united and with a lot of love”. Making the most out of the technological tools available to them through social media, they make possible that those who have to abort “during a pandemic, in obligatory isolation” nonetheless report to have “seldom felt so hugged”. In invoking and giving a collective (if virtual) space to these feelings, the activists create a politicised space within which people who abort emerge as political agents. By de facto providing pregnant people with safe abortion in a context which does not legally grant them access to it, both activists and people who abort engage in a form of democratic disruption, which is commonly illegible as such because it is defined as public, outwardly directed action. During a time that confines women to the heteronormative space of the home and has already been identified as reinforcing traditional gender roles, this work is particularly important.

The resurgence of heteronormative patterns of social organisation in moments of crises resonates with other historical moments, for instance Argentina’s financial crisis in 2001, during which women found themselves forced back into the role of familial caregivers and nurturers. Similarly, the current crisis has frequently meant that women across the globe have been increasingly taking on caring responsibilities and household labours, reinforcing the heteronormative equation of woman- and motherhood[4]. This normative femininity is upheld through attaching associations of silence and shame to those who do not comply with it — such as people who choose to have an abortion. Because these affective notions of stigma, silence and shame sticking to those who abort serve an important sociopolitical function in sustaining abortion as impermissible, the affective dimension of the work Socorristas en Red do under normal circumstances is particularly important. This involves the invocation of affective attachments of solidarity and sorority to each other as a community both through the rhetorics chosen in their online communication, and their physically being present during the often challenging experience of gaining access to, and undergoing an abortion. Their usual work already relies significantly on digital spaces to facilitate the creation of political spaces which straddle the tension between the privacy of the home, in which abortions usually take place, and the public as the sphere usually reserved for political intervention. Socorrista activism creates a semi-public space, both online and offline, which can be accessed by those who seek it out, provides the setting for a practice which activists decisively frame as a political intervention in so far as that it positions those who abort as political agents rather than voiceless victims, but also maintains the intimacy of private encounters.

As alternative and dissident political spaces have been particularly affected by lockdown restrictions, political participation has become harder for those already disadvantaged in accessing the political sphere. Therefore, activists’ online activities have become even more important during the current pandemic. Suddenly, activists were no longer able to rely on physical presence and intimacy as a means of giving people who abort a sense of connectedness and support. Rather, their work currently consists of being a constant port of call via WhatsApp throughout the process of aborting. In doing so, this new online work opens up the space for imagining new strategies for positioning people who abort as agentic political subjects, who wilfully and autonomously decide over their own bodies and livelihoods, in a time in which they have more so than usually been confined to seemingly depoliticised, private spaces. The Socorristas’ creation of virtual connections and spaces of private, but political, action gives pregnant people “the tranquility to be able to decide over [their] body, to decide over [their] lives”. It establishes people who abort as political agents, rather than silenced victims, and creates alternative communities of support stepping in where heteronormative institutions like the state and family fall short.

To sum up, the ability of the Socorristas to mobilise the internet and social media to maintain and strengthen their support network during the current pandemic crucially not only contributes to the safety of abortion during COVID-19. Their activism postulates women and other people who choose to abort as agentic political subjects in a time which has seen the resurgence of traditional gender roles and relegation of reproductive issues to the private and secondary. In proactively counteracting these isolating and restrictive heteronorms through their activist practice, they enable people to emerge from the experience of abortion “stronger, […] more feminist, […] and above all more powerful”.

[1] This piece builds on the findings of my MSc dissertation, for which I researched the health- and rights-based discursive strategies employed by Argentine abortion activists. Conducting my research during the ongoing pandemic, I became interested in how activist groups responded and adapted their work to these challenging circumstances.

[2] Misoprostol is a prescription drug for the treatment of gastric ulcers with abortive side-effects and an important way of making abortion more accessible is informing people who seek abortions which sympathetic pharmacies they might be able to procure the drug from.

[3] I follow the terminology chosen by activists themselves, who refer to people or identities ‘with the capacity to gestate’ to account for the fact that not only women, but also trans men and non-binary people seek abortions. This inclusive language reflects the significant impact LGBTQ+ struggles and victories such as the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2010 and the gender identity law in 2012 had on the wider feminist movement.

[4] Heteronormative femininity goes hand in hand with definitions of Argentine national belonging. Nationalist conceptions of women as ‘citizen-mothers’ uphold infringements of reproductive rights and are institutionalised in the current legislation of abortion which dates back to 1921 and reflects eugenic concerns with national purity of the time. Therefore, the demand for legal, safe and free abortion has broader implications for the destabilisation of gendered imaginaries of the nation.

I have a ΒΑ in Politics and International Relations from the University of Cambridge and have recently completed an MSc in Gender, Development and Globalisation at the LSE Gender Department, where I wrote my dissertation on the political and epistemic implications of contemporary Argentine abortion activism. My research interest lies in the various connections between nationhood, power, gender, and sexuality in the context of struggles for reproductive justice in Latin America.