Bill legalizing abortion passes in Pope Francis’ native Argentina

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Argentina’s Senate on Wednesday passed a law legalizing elective abortion in Pope Francis’ homeland after a marathon 12-hour session, a victory for the women’s movement that has fought for the right for decades.

The vote means that abortion will be legal until the 14th week of pregnancy, and will also be legal after that date in cases of rape or danger to the life of the mother. It will have repercussions on a continent where the procedure is largely illegal.

The measure, which passed by 38 votes to 29 with one abstention, has already been approved by Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies and has the support of President Alberto Fernández, meaning the vote in the Senate was his final hurdle.

“Safe, legal and free abortion is now the law, Fernández tweeted after the vote, noting that it was a campaign promise.

“Today we are a better society that extends women’s rights and guarantees public health,” he added.

Argentina is the largest country in Latin America to legalize abortion, and the vote was closely watched. With the exception of Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico City, the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the West Indies, and French Guiana, abortion remains largely illegal in the region.

Outside the Senate, pro and anti-abortion activists rallied, with supporters of the bill wearing the green color that represents their abortion rights movement. Supporters waved green flags as Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who chaired the debate, announced the result, shouting “legal hospital abortion!” that the measure was passed.

Pro-choice protesters await the outcome of the December 30, 2020 vote in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

So far, Argentina has penalized women and those who help them abort. The only exceptions were cases involving rape or risk to the health of the mother, and activists even complain that these exceptions are not respected in some provinces.

Before the vote, the Roman Catholic episcopal conference had denounced what it called a “febrile obsession with installing abortion”.

Just hours before the start of the Senate session on Tuesday, the Pope intervened, Tweeter: “The Son of God was born pariah, to tell us that every pariah is a child of God. He came into the world as every child comes into the world, weak and vulnerable, so that we learn to accept our weaknesses with a tender love .”

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After the vote, the bishops issued a statement saying the measure will “deepen even further the divisions in our country” and lamented that the country’s leaders are alienated from the prevailing pro-life sentiment across the country.

Pro-Life group Unity said the date would be remembered “as one of the most gruesome days in recent history”.

A previous abortion bill was rejected by Argentine lawmakers in 2018, but this time it was backed by the centre-left government. The outcome, however, was still considered uncertain. This was partly because political parties, including the ruling Peronist movement, gave their legislators the freedom to vote as they saw fit. Two of the 72 senators were absent and 43 of the remaining 70 senators were men.

Argentina’s feminist movement has been calling for legal abortion for more than 30 years and activists say the bill’s approval could mark a turning point in Latin America, where the influence of the Roman Catholic Church has long dominated.

Amnesty International celebrated the vote as “an inspiration for other countries in the region and the world to move forward in recognizing access to legal and safe abortion”.

Also outside the legislature, a group that calls its members “defenders of two lives” erected an altar with a crucifix under a blue tent.

Opponents of the bill, separated by a barrier from its supporters, watched sullenly as the vote unfolded.

“These politicians do not represent the majority,” said opponent Luciana Prat, an Argentinian flag covering her shoulders. “In all the polls, people are against it.”

Supporters said the bill aims to stamp out clandestine abortions that have caused more than 3,000 deaths in the country since 1983, according to authorities’ figures.

In addition to allowing abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, the legislation allows for early termination of a pregnancy if it results from rape or if the person’s life or health is in danger.

It will allow conscientious refusal to participate in an abortion for health professionals and private medical institutions in which all doctors are opposed to the procedure. But they will be required to refer the woman to another medical center. Nor can conscientious objection be invoked if the life or health of a pregnant woman is in danger.

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AP reporter Yesica Brumec contributed to this report.

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