Argentine Senate approves bill to legalise abortion

Argentina becomes the fourth country in Latin America to legalise abortion.

Abortion-rights activists watch live streaming of lawmakers in session in Buenos Aires [Natacha Pisarenko/AP]

Argentina’s Senate has passed a landmark abortion bill, becoming the fourth country in Latin America to legalise the practice.

The Senate voted by 38 in favour to 29 against with one abstention to approve a bill allowing the procedure through the 14th week of pregnancy, bucking the traditionally strong influence of the Catholic Church in the region.

The contentious vote followed a marathon debate that began at 4pm (19:00 GMT) on Tuesday.

Tens of thousands of people packed into the square around the National Congress for a 12-hour debate, breaking into chants of  “legal abortion in the hospital” as the votes were counted.

“I can’t believe it,” said Viviana Rios Alvarado, 25, as she embraced her friend moments after the vote.

“So many things we’ve been through or that people we love have suffered through. It’s took too long, but now it’s here for others, and for us too. And that’s incredible,” she said.

“Today we are a better society that widens the rights of women and guarantees public health,” tweeted President Alberto Fernandez, who put forward the bill, the first president to do so in Argentina.

The vote is the result of a long campaign in a country that remained divided on the issue.

Opponents also gathered outside the Congress, holding a mass and praying for legislators to block the bill.

Demonstrators in favour of legalising abortion react after the senate passed an abortion bill, in Buenos Aires, Argentina [Flor Guzzetti/Reuters]

As the result was read out, a crowd of thousands erupted in cheers outside the Senate building in Buenos Aires, waving the green flags that represented their campaign as green smoke rose above the crowd.

“This gives me a great deal of joy,” said Micaela Guzman, 22, following the vote and standing within eyeshot of the National Congress, as music blared over nearby speakers. She recalled the disappointment she felt when a similar bill was defeated in 2018.

“It’s something we’ve been waiting for for a long time, and it was time that we achieved it,” she said.

“We did it sisters. We made history. We did it together. There are no words for this moment, it passes through the body and the soul,” tweeted Monica Macha, a politician with President Alberto Fernandez’ centre-left ruling coalition which supported the law.

The ruling could set the tone for a wider shift in conservative Latin America where there are growing calls for greater reproductive rights for women.

Across the region, abortions are available on demand only in Communist Cuba, comparatively tiny Uruguay and some parts of Mexico.

“Adopting a law that legalizes abortion in a Catholic country as big as Argentina will energize the struggle to ensure women’s rights in Latin America,” said Juan Pappier, a senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Although there will certainly be resistance, I think it’s fair to predict that, as it occurred when Argentina legalised same sex marriage in 2010, this new law could have a domino effect in the region.”

Erika Guevara Rosas, head of Amnesty International Americas division, called it an “emblematic advance in defence of human rights” and one which sends a “strong message of hope to our entire continent.”

Until now, Argentine law has only allowed abortion when there is a serious risk to the health of the mother or in cases of rape.

Pro-choice groups argue that criminalising abortion harms women from the most vulnerable groups who they say are instead often forced to seek dangerous illegal abortions.

Argentina’s powerful Catholic church argues the practice violates the right to life. Argentina is the birthplace of Pope Francis.

In the weeks leading up to the debate, thousands of people protested against the bill. They also descended on the National Congress on Tuesday, although in smaller numbers, festooned in light blue, the colour that represents their opposition. A Catholic mass was held on a patch of grass that was covered in crosses.

For Josefine Soraide, the solution to unwanted pregnancies is not abortion, but better sexual education.

“I also come from a poor family, and I was not desired,” said the 21-year-old. “But I thank my mom for having me. There are people who came from the bottom and now they’re people who are important. And that’s why I’m here: for all those babies, even though they may say they are going to suffer, they have a future.”

A change in the law was narrowly defeated in a Senate vote in 2018 after being approved in the lower house, but the latest bill was the first to have the backing of the ruling government.

Even before the votes were cast, Senator Silvia Elias de Perez, from the conservative province of Tucuman, said she would fight approval of the bill in court.

“If this bill becomes law it will be unconstitutional, absolutely and flagrantly. It will be a judge of the Nation who ends up deciding because we are going to raise unconstitutionality,” she said in a press conference.

Natalie Alcoba contributed to the report from Buenos Aires

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies