Argentine Senate weighs fate of abortion in pope's homeland

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Abortion-rights activists rally outside Congress as lawmakers debate a bill that would legalize abortion, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

BUENOS AIRES – The decades-long fight by Argentine women’s groups for legal abortion was being decided by the Senate in a debate that spilled into the early hours of Wednesday before a vote that could change the outlook for the procedure across a continent where it is still largely illegal.

The bill, which would legalize elective abortion in the first 14 weeks of a pregnancy, was already approved by Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies and had the support of President Alberto Fernández, meaning the Senate vote would be its final hurdle in the homeland of Pope Francis.

A previous abortion bill was voted down by lawmakers in 2018, but this time it was being backed by the center-left government. Seventy senators, more than half of them men, were to vote on the measure sometime Wednesday. The outcome was considered uncertain.

"The vote is even,” said Sen. Nancy González, a backer of the legislation. “This is vote by vote. We are still working on the undecided.”

Outside the Senate in Buenos Aires, pro- and anti-abortion activists gathered, with the bill's supporters wearing the color green that represents their pro-abortion movement.

Argentina’s feminist movement has been demanding legal abortion for more than 30 years and activists say the bill's approval could mark a watershed in Latin America, where the Roman Catholic Church's influence has long dominated. Abortion remains largely illegal in the region, except for in Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico City, the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the Antilles and French Guiana.

“Our country is a country of many contradictions,” said Ester Albarello, a psychiatrist with a network of health professionals that supports the bill, who was among the demonstrators outside the congressional building. “It is the only one in the world that brought members of its genocidal military dictatorship to justice with all the guarantees. But we still don’t have legal abortion. Why? Because the church is together with the state.”

Hours before the start of the historic session, the pope again once commented on abortion.