Pro-choice activists took to the streets on Wednesday as Argentina joined a handful of South American countries to legalize abortion, a landmark decision in a country where the Catholic Church has long ruled.
Senate President Cristina Kirchner confirmed the vote after more than a 12-hour debate that began on Tuesday, sparking scenes of cheers in the capital, Buenos Aires.
“Safe, legal and free abortion is law … Now we are a better society that increases women’s rights and protects public health,” wrote President Alberto Fernandez, who sponsored the original bill, on Twitter.
Hundreds of thousands of illegal dismissals are carried out every year in Argentina with at least 3,000 women dying after abortions in back streets since the 1980s, says Fernandez, who is a Catholic.
Before the vote, he said the law was necessary “to legislate for all.”
“After so many attempts and years of struggle that cost us blood and lives, today we finally made history,” said protester Sandra Lujan, a 41-year-old psychologist, after the vote during Wednesday’s dawn.
“Today we are leaving a better place for our sons and daughters.”
The bill of 44 million succeeded in the country despite strong opposition from evangelical Christians and traditional Roman Catholics – with Pope Francis tweeting his silent disapproval of change before the vote.
Human Rights Watch U.S. President Jose Miguel Vivanco hailed the decision as historic, hoping it would stimulate other governments in the region to follow in the footsteps of one of Latin America’s largest nations.
“The criminalization of abortion has failed. It’s time to end it,” he tweeted.
However, the right-wing leader of neighboring Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, quickly signaled his disapproval.
“I deeply regret the lives of the Argentine children, who are now being cut from their mothers’ wombs with the permission of the state,” tweeted the head of the world’s largest Catholic country, where abortion is still illegal.
The new Argentine legislation allows voluntary terminations up to 14 weeks of pregnancy and was approved 38 to 29 with one abstention.
The vote overturned a similar one in 2018 which – although it also passed the House – was finally founded in the Senate by 38 votes to 31.
Only Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana allow voluntary redundancies in South America, which has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.
In El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, it is forbidden and women can be sentenced to prison even for miscarriage.
In Argentina, redundancies were previously allowed in only two cases: rape and danger to the mother’s life.
‘The gift of life’
The bill passed the Chamber of Deputies on 11 December.
Francis, who is Argentine, has not commented on the vote directly, but many felt that he indirectly raised the issue in a speech on Wednesday morning.
“Christians, like all believers, bless God for the gift of life. To live is above all to have received,” he said in his last speech before the New Year.
“We are all born because someone wanted us to come to life.”
More than 60 percent of Argentines call themselves Catholics, according to a 2019 survey by the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (Conicet).
Another Conicet survey this year found that more than half of Argentina’s Catholics only supported abortion under limited conditions – with about 22 percent supporting it and about 17 percent rejecting it anyway.
“The termination of a pregnancy is a tragedy. It suddenly ends another developmental life,” said Ines Blas, a senator from the ruling coalition.
However, Senator Silvina Garcia Larraburu, from the same coalition, had said she would vote in favor of the bill this time despite opposing it in 2018.
‘Century of regression’
Despite measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of anti-election and anti-abortion protesters had gathered outside parliament before the vote, following the debate on giant screens.
For several years, pro-choice activists have campaigned to change the abortion laws of 1921 and adopted a green scarf as a symbol.
Anti-abortion activists, who recently began wearing light blue scarves, expressed grief after the vote.
The Alliance of Evangelical Churches issued a statement calling it “a sad day.”
“Today, Argentina regained centuries in terms of civilization and respect for the highest right to life,” the alliance said.
Social change has always been slow in Argentina: divorce was first legalized in 1987, sex education was introduced in 2006, gay marriage was approved in 2010 and a gender identity law was adopted in 2012.