Argentina was on the verge of legalizing abortion on Tuesday due to objections from its influential Roman Catholic Church, with the Senate preparing to vote on a measure supported by the ruling party that has already passed the lower house.
Passage would make Argentina the first major country in predominantly Catholic Latin America to allow abortion on request. The Senate debate began at 16.00 (1900 GMT) and was expected to take place on Wednesday morning. The vote was expected to be close.
“Adopting a law legalizing abortion in a Catholic country as large as Argentina will stimulate the fight for women’s rights in Latin America,” said Juan Pappier, a senior U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“While there will certainly be opposition, I think it’s fair to predict that the new law could have a domino effect in the region, as it did when Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010,” Pappier said.
Protesters both for and against the bill came from all over the country to stand awake in front of the Senate building in Buenos Aires.
“Argentina is a pro-life country,” a woman, who said she was from Cordoba province, told local television as she sat in a folding chair under an umbrella that protected her from the summer sun in the southern hemisphere. She and others who knelt in prayer nearby said they opposed changing the law.
The Argentine Congress has rejected the amendment in the past, but this is the first time such a bill has been presented to legislators with the support of the ruling government. In 2018, before center-left Peronist Alberto Fernandez was elected president, a similar bill was rejected by a small margin.
Maria Angela Guerrero of the Campaign for Legal Abortion told reporters in front of the Senate that she was “cautiously optimistic” that the bill would pass this time. Lawyers say the measure is needed to protect women who would otherwise risk their lives in unregulated, illegal abortions.
The Catholic Church is urging senators to reject the proposal, which would allow women to terminate pregnancies until the 14th week. Argentina is the birthplace of Pope Francis.
Argentine law now allows abortion only when there is a serious risk to the mother’s health or in cases of rape.
The current bill is accompanied by ancillary legislation aimed at helping women who want to continue their pregnancies and face serious economic or social difficulties.
Legal abortion is extremely rare in Latin America due to the church’s long history. Across the region, abortions are only available on request in communist Cuba, relatively small Uruguay and some parts of Mexico.
Pastor Jorge Gomez, head of the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches of Argentina (Aciera), agreed with his Catholic counterparts and protested against the measure.
“I know there are unexpected pregnancies and I respect women’s rights. But I do not recognize abortion as a right,” Gomez told reporters.