Argentina's Lower House Votes to Ease Abortion Laws



BUENOS AIRES—Argentine lawmakers on Thursday narrowly approved a bill to legalize elective abortions following a heated debate over a proposal that would make the country the first major Latin American nation to ease strict antiabortion laws.

After a session lasting more than 22 hours, the lower house of Congress voted 129 versus 125 in favor of legislation to allow abortions during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

“This is a great day for all women. Women are proud to be taking this step,” said Silvia Lospennato, a ruling party lawmaker who voted in support of the bill. “Women are going to fight for equality, whatever it costs.”

The bill will now require approval from the Senate, where the vote is also expected to be tight. President

Mauricio Macri

has said that while he opposes abortion, he would not veto the legislation if approved in Congress.

The debate over decriminalizing abortions during the first trimester has polarized Argentina, a country of 44 million. Argentina is the home country of

Pope Francis,

but the Catholic Church has seen its once powerful influence wane in recent years.

While the Catholic Church in Argentina has publicly opposed the abortion law, the pope and Vatican have been silent on the debate. Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has down-played issues of sexual and medical ethics, while being more vocal on social and economic justice, migration and the environment.

The vote comes just weeks after Ireland, another once deeply conservative Catholic nation, overwhelmingly voted to repeal a constitutional ban on abortion, reflecting its transformation to a more secular society.

Argentina is considered one of Latin America’s most secular societies. In 2010, the country legalized same-sex marriage, the first to do so in the region. The legislation also permitted gay couples to adopt children.

Abortion is highly restricted in most Latin American countries, with outright bans in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, according to the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights. Elective abortion is legal in Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana and Mexico City.

In Argentina, pro-abortion activists celebrated the vote Thursday as thousands of proponents demonstrated throughout the night outside of Congress, wearing green bandannas and holding signs calling for “legal abortion now.”

They argue the law would provide women with access to safe abortions in hospitals in a nation where rights organizations say about 500,000 women undergo clandestine procedures each year. Abortions are outlawed in Argentina except in cases where pregnancies result from rape or when a woman’s health is at risk.

“I’m very excited, we fought so many years for this law,” said Maria Leivas, a 32-year-old teacher who was demonstrating outside of Congress. “Now, we are going to fight for its approval in the Senate.”

Opponents of the bill, which would also permit abortions after 14 weeks in cases of rape and when a woman’s health is in danger, said they were outraged over the vote after protesting with signs saying “I march for life” and “don’t kill me.”

“I’m embarrassed as an Argentine and as a Catholic over what is happening,” said Raul Mansilla, a 33-year-old lawyer. “We’ve lost all our principles and moral values that our grandparents and parents left us.”

Pro-abortion activists say the push to legalize abortion grew out of a movement called “Not One Less,” which began in Argentina in 2015 with protests calling for the end of violence against women.

“That is intertwined with abortion,” said Mariana Romero, a health expert and director of the Buenos Aires-based Center for the Study of the State and Society. “The two movements are really linked because they speak about women’s options and choices.”

Supporters of the law say its final approval would be a big step forward for women’s rights in Latin America and could lead the way for other countries to follow Argentina in expanding legal access to abortions.

“If this happens in Argentina it will be fantastic for the movement,” said Carmen Martinez, the regional manager for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “It would be a big example to other countries in the region.”

Write to Ryan Dube at ryan.dube@dowjones.com



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