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Argentina legalizes abortion, a move likely to reverberate across Latin America

A cheering crowd of protesters wearing green and waving green flags
Abortion rights activists in Buenos Aires watch live video of the Argentine Senate, which voted Wednesday to legalize abortion.
(Natacha Pisarenko / Associated Press)

In a move expected to reverberate across Latin America, Argentina’s Senate passed a law legalizing abortion early Wednesday after a marathon 12-hour session, a landmark victory for the women’s movement that has been fighting for the right for decades.

The Senate vote means that abortion will be legal in Pope Francis’ homeland up to the 14th week of pregnancy and after that point in cases of rape or danger to the mother’s life. The measure was passed with 38 votes in favor, 29 against and one abstention at the end of a session that began late Tuesday.

The bill had already been approved by Argentina’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and has the support of President Alberto Fernández, meaning that the Senate vote was its final hurdle.

“Safe, legal and free abortion is now the law,” Fernández tweeted after the vote, noting that it had been one of his election pledges. “Today, we are a better society that expands women’s rights and guarantees public health.”

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Argentina is the largest Latin American country to legalize abortion, and the vote was being closely watched in a region where the Roman Catholic Church’s influence has long dominated. With the exceptions of Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico City, Mexico’s Oaxaca state, the Antilles and French Guiana, abortion remains largely illegal.

Argentina until now has penalized women and those who help them have abortions. The only exceptions were cases involving rape or a risk to the health of the mother. Activists complain that even these exceptions are not respected in some provinces.

Just hours before the Senate session began Tuesday, the pope weighed in, tweeting: “The Son of God was born an outcast, in order to tell us that every outcast is a child of God. He came into the world as each child comes into the world, weak and vulnerable, so that we can learn to accept our weaknesses with tender love.”

A previous abortion bill was voted down by Argentine lawmakers in 2018, but this time it was backed by the center-left government.

The outcome of the latest vote, however, had still been considered uncertain. That was partly due to the fact that the political parties, including the governing Peronist movement, gave their legislators freedom to vote as they chose. Two of the 72 senators were absent, and 43 of the remaining 70 senators were men.

Outside the Senate, both abortion rights activists and antiabortion protesters gathered, with the bill’s supporters wearing green, the color that symbolizes the abortion rights movement. Backers waved green flags as Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who presided over the Senate debate, announced the result of the vote.

Argentina’s women’s movement has been demanding legal abortion for more than 30 years.

“Our country is a country of many contradictions,” said Ester Albarello, a psychiatrist who was among the bill’s supporters gathered 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.”

Also outside the congressional building, a group that calls its members “defenders of the two lives” set up an altar with a crucifix under a blue tent. Opponents of the abortion rights bill, separated from its backers by a barrier, watched glumly as the vote unfolded.

“These politicians aren’t representing the majority,” said Luciana Prat, an Argentine flag draped over her shoulders. “In all the polls, people are against this.”

Supporters said the bill would help eradicate the clandestine abortions that have caused more than 3,000 deaths in the country since 1983, according to figures from authorities.

The bill allows conscientious refusal to participate in an abortion for health professionals and private medical institutions at which all doctors are against the procedure. But they will be required to refer the woman to another medical center. Conscientious objection also cannot be claimed if a pregnant woman’s life or health is in danger.


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