Why Milei won’t succeed in repealing Argentina’s abortion policy

Javier Milei’s electoral victory ushered in another right-wing populist win in Latin America. The new president threatens to undo a major achievement for women’s rights — Argentina’s abortion legalisation. Yet Milei might not succeed. Camilla Reuterswärd and Cora Fernandez Anderson explain why the radical populist will likely lose the battle over abortion

Milei’s battery of economic far-right policies is not the only reason we should care about another conservative populist victory in Latin America. Instead, his opposition to feminist policies and promise to repeal Argentina’s groundbreaking abortion policy merits particular attention. For sure, Milei is not the first populist leader-elect to seek abortion restrictions within a broader agenda of opposing sexual and reproductive rights. His views largely follow the anti-gender blueprint of most right-wing populist leaders. Milei’s methods, however, do show some innovation. Leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro weaponised the issue of abortion to court the evangelical right. Milei’s discourse has instead remained secular. In fact, he alienated the Catholic Church, and Evangelicals refrained from supporting his candidacy.

Milei’s secular fight against feminism threatens to put an end to Argentina’s newly reformed abortion policy. His plan, however, is unlikely to succeed. The feminist movement’s strength, coupled with a weak far-right presence in Congress, might be obstacles too big to overcome.

Milei’s distance from religious forces

Right-wing populist leaders in Latin America have played leading roles in attempts to confront the region’s rising feminism. Opposition to sexual and reproductive rights broadly conceived have become key for right-wing populists seeking to boost conservative votes. Motivated by Catholic or Evangelical beliefs and a return to 'traditional values', leaders have vowed to pursue restrictive reforms. In Argentina, however, Milei’s staunch opposition to abortion is grounded in a hetero-patriarchal worldview and, according to him, a 'philosophical, biological and mathematical position.' Milei branded abortion 'murder' during his electoral campaign, and pledged to repeal the existing law in Congress — or through a referendum, if necessary.

Milei’s staunch opposition to abortion is founded not on religious beliefs but a 'philosophical, biological and mathematical position'

Right-wing populists have typically maintained close ties to conservative-religious forces. In Brazil and Chile, clergy and church-associated groups increased their political influence via links to right-wing populist candidates. Bolsonaro’s promise to put God and traditional family first proved vital for attracting a conservative constituency composed of both Catholics and Evangelicals. In sharp contrast, Argentina’s new president appears uninterested in forging alliances with religious hierarchies. Milei called Pope Francis an 'imbecile' for defending social justice and 'the representative of malignance on Earth'. Inspired by the project of secularisation instigated by Argentina's founding fathers, Milei even suggested he would cut ties with the Vatican if elected.

Aside from antagonising the Catholic Church, Milei refrained from courting Evangelicals to attract a broader constituency. Evangelicals constitute only 15% of Argentina’s population, and they remain divided around his proposals. One Evangelical association publicly criticised Milei’s disdain for social justice, human rights and the sacredness of human beings. Another association refused to support any of the candidates.

Clashes with the feminist movement

Since the emergence of the Ni una menos (not one woman less) movement against femicide in 2015, feminism in Argentina has been on the rise. In 2018, the campaign for legal, safe and free abortion inundated the streets with women wearing green scarves. The movement quickly expanded across social classes and diverse geographical spaces. Teenagers and college students, las pibas, were especially active, and embraced feminist perspectives.

Argentina green scarf abortion rights march
Women calling for the right to legal, safe and free abortion hold aloft green scarves

Resistance to the movement grew equally fast, primarily through social media (the manosphere) but also via TV and radio personalities. Milei read the situation, and quickly became the voice of men feeling uncomfortable with the feminist movement. Sixty percent of Milei's core constituents are men, mostly under thirty. Milei promised to eliminate the Ministry for Women, Gender and Diversity, and to ban sex education in schools. He even denies that a gender gap exists.

Milei campaigned for the presidency on a promise to eliminate the Ministry for Women, Gender and Diversity, and to ban sex ed in schools

The feminist movement, in turn, became a key force challenging Milei’s candidacy. To confront his patriarchal narrative, activists advanced a campaign redefining his message of ‘freedom’ from a feminist and social justice perspective: 'Freedom means being able to retire after working as a housewife and caregiver'.

The political power of Argentina’s feminist movement is not to be underestimated. Three years ago, the country made history as the first large Latin American country to legalise abortion. Thousands of women took to the streets in 2020, despite the Covid restrictions. The massive mobilisations orchestrated by feminist activists ultimately succeeded in liberalising the law.

Towards a repeal of Argentina’s abortion legalisation?

As part of his electoral platform, Milei promised to repeal the 2020 law. This is, however, an unlikely prospect given the feminist movement’s strength and his party’s weak presence in Congress.

First of all, the feminist movement is very much still alive. During the electoral campaigns, feminist activists organised several pro-choice demonstrations, including outside the Argentinian Congress. The movement’s continued strength suggests that Milei might be underestimating feminism as a political force. Serious attempts to repeal the law will result in strong mobilisation. Polls show that 56% of Argentinians support the existing law.

The feminist movement’s growing strength suggests Milei might be underestimating it as a political force. Any attempt to repeal the abortion law will trigger strong mobilisation

Besides a strong feminist movement willing to defend its victories if needed, the new president lacks a strong congressional presence. Milei’s campaign focused almost exclusively on himself, and as an 'anti-system' candidate, he lacks a large party structure. Only 15% of legislators in the Lower Chamber and 10% in the Senate belong to his party. This will make repealing the abortion law, as well as approving any other bill, an uphill struggle. Even with the support of the right-wing PRO Party, repealing legal abortion won’t be easy. The issue cuts across all political parties in Argentina, and some PRO legislators supported the reform in 2020.

The referendum route is equally challenging. Many lawyers have stated that, based on article 39 of the Constitution, penal issues cannot be subjected to popular vote. Repealing the law might therefore be unconstitutional. But will Milei play by the rules? If the actions of his fellow populist leaders in the region is anything to go by, the answer is no.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Camilla Reuterswärd Camilla Reuterswärd Assistant Professor in Political Science, Department of Government, Uppsala University More by this author
photograph of Cora Fernandez Anderson Cora Fernandez Anderson Associate Professor of Comparative Politics, Chair of the Politics Department, Mount Holyoke College, Massachussetts More by this author

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