Argentina Wednesday became one of only a handful of South American nations to legalize abortion, a landmark decision in a country where the Catholic Church has long held sway.
Senate president Cristina Kirchner confirmed the vote, after more than twelve hours of debate, with thousands of pro-choice activists celebrating on the streets of capital Buenos Aires.
Hundreds of thousands of illegal terminations are carried out every year with at least 3,000 women dying after backstreet abortions since the 1980s, said President Alberto Fernandez, who proposed the bill earlier this year.
“After so many attempts and years of struggle that cost us blood and lives, today we finally made history,” protester Sandra Lujan, a 41-year-old psychologist, said after the vote.
“Today we leave a better place for our sons and daughters.”
The landmark bill in the country of 44 million succeeded despite strong opposition from Evangelical Christians and traditional Roman Catholics — with Pope Francis tweeting his tacit disapproval of change ahead of the vote.
Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco hailed the decision as a historic step, and hoped it would energize other governments to legalize abortion in Latin America.
“The criminalization of abortion has failed. It’s time to end it,” he tweeted.
The new legislation will allow voluntary terminations up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, and was approved 38 to 29 with one abstention.
The vote overturns a similar one in 2018 which — although also passed the lower house — ultimately foundered in the Senate by 38 votes to 31.
Only Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana allow voluntary terminations in South America, which has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.
In Argentina, terminations were previously allowed in only two instances: rape, and danger to the mother’s life.
– ‘Legislate for everyone’ –
The bill was proposed by President Fernandez and passed the Chamber of Deputies on December 11.
“I’m Catholic but I have to legislate for everyone. Every year around 38,000 women are taken to hospital due to (clandestine) abortions and since the restoration of democracy (in 1983) more than 3,000 have died,” Fernandez said earlier.
After the law was passed, Fernandez tweeted: “Today we are a better society that expands rights to women and guarantees public health.”
Earlier Wednesday Pope Francis, who is Argentine, tweeted: “The son of God was born discarded to tell us that every person discarded is a child of God.”
While not explicitly mentioning the vote, his comment was interpreted by many as encouraging the senators to vote against the bill.
More than 60 percent of Argentines call themselves Catholic, according to a 2019 survey by the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (Conicet).
Another Conicet survey this year found more than half of Argentia’s Catholics supported abortion only in some limited circumstances — with around 22 percent supporting it, and roughly 17 percent rejecting it in all cases.
“The interruption of a pregnancy is a tragedy. It abruptly ends another developing life,” said Ines Blas, a senator from the ruling coalition.
However, Senator Silvina Garcia Larraburu, from the same coalition, said she would vote for the bill this time despite being against it in 2018.
– Love for all children –
Despite measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of pro-choice and anti-abortion demonstrators had gathered outside parliament ahead of the vote, following the debate on giant screens.
Pro-choice activists have campaigned for years to change the abortion laws that date from 1921, adopting a green scarf as their symbol.
Anti-abortion activists, who recently started wearing light blue scarves, expressed sadness after the vote passed.
Social law changes have always been slow in Argentina: divorce was legalized only in 1987, sex education introduced in 2006, gay marriage approved in 2010 and a gender identity law passed in 2012.
In Latin America, abortion is only legal in Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana, as well as Mexico City.
In El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, it is banned, and women can be sentenced to jail even for having a miscarriage.
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