Argentine Senate debates measure to legalize abortion

BUENOS AIRES: The Senate debated a bill Wednesday that would legalize elective abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy in the homeland of Pope Francis, setting up a vote that could reverberate around the region.

Argentina’s lower house of Congress already passed the measure, and President Mauricio Macri said he would sign it if approved by the Senate.

By Wednesday night, the Senate’s debate stretched more than 10 hours. A vote was expected by late Wednesday or early Thursday. The Senate also could modify the bill and return it to the lower house.

Argentina now allows abortion only in cases of rape or risks to a woman’s health, and activists say 3,000 women have died of illegal abortions since 1983. Opponents, meanwhile, insist life begins at conception and complain the bill could force doctors to perform the procedure even when they believe it is hazardous.

The issue has bitterly divided Argentines, pitting conservative doctors and the Roman Catholic Church against feminist groups and other physicians.

Hundreds of doctors have staged anti-abortion protests, in one case laying their white medical coats on the ground outside the presidential palace. Feminist groups, in turn, have held demonstrations in support of the measure, often wearing green that symbolizes their movement or costumes based on author Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Many demonstrators braved a heavy rain and the cold of the Argentine winter waiting outside the Congress building.

Daiana Anadon, leader of the feminist group Wave, said she and hundreds of other women would stay “until the final moment because we believe the power of the street will move the situation.”

During the debate, Sen. Mario Fiad called abortion a “tragedy and said he opposed the legislation, arguing it is unconstitutional and violates international treaties.

“The right to life is about to become the weakest of rights,” said Fiad.

Opposition Sen. Pedro Guastavino said he was initially against the proposal but changed his mind after coming to understand that illegal abortions put lives at risk.

“The only way to understand this is through the point of view of public health,” he said.

International human rights and women’s groups were following the vote, and figures such as US actress Susan Sarandon and Canadian author Atwood supported the pro-abortion cause in Argentina.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, said Argentina had a “historic opportunity” to protect the rights of women. Amnesty International told Argentine legislators that “the world is watching.”

Catholic and evangelical groups protested abortion with the slogan, “Argentina, filicide (child murder) will be your ruin.”

Women’s movements across South America have been pushing against decades-old abortion prohibitions.

In neighboring Brazil, supporters and opponents of abortion recently testified before the Supreme Federal Tribunal in an extraordinary session on whether to allow elective abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

In Brazil, which is home to the world’s largest population of Catholics and fast-growing evangelical faiths, abortion carries a punishment of up to three years in prison. There are three exceptions: if a woman is raped, pregnancy puts her life in danger, or a fetus is brain-dead.

Chile’s Constitutional Court last year upheld legislation ending the Andean nation’s absolute ban on abortions, permitting the procedure when a woman’s life is in danger, when a fetus is not viable or in cases of rape.

Small groups rallied in other countries across the region to voice support for the Argentine abortion measure, including in Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru.