Argentina legalizes abortion in landmark move
People react as Argentina's Senate votes to legalize abortion in Buenos Aires, Argentina, December 30, 2020. /Argentine Senate/Handout via Reuters

People react as Argentina's Senate votes to legalize abortion in Buenos Aires, Argentina, December 30, 2020. /Argentine Senate/Handout via Reuters

Argentina's Senate voted on Wednesday to legalize abortion, making it the first major South American country to do so, despite strong opposition from the Catholic Church, and sparking wide street celebrations in the capital Buenos Aires.

The vote came at 4 a.m. after 12 hours of debate and was passed by 38 votes to 29, with one abstention.

The bill, which was already approved by the lower house earlier in December, means women in Argentina will now be able to get an abortion up to 14 weeks into their pregnancy. Until now, abortion was only allowed in the case of rape or if the mother's health was in danger.

"Safe, legal and free abortion is law... Now we're a better society that is increasing women's rights and safeguarding public health," President Alberto Fernandez, who sponsored the original bill, wrote on Twitter.

Hundreds of thousands of illegal pregnancy terminations are carried out every year in Argentina with at least 3,000 women dying after backstreet abortions since the 1980s, said Fernandez.

"This has been a struggle for many years, many women died. Never again will there be a woman killed in a clandestine abortion," said Vilma Ibarra, the author of the law and legal and technical secretary for the presidency, who wept as she spoke to reporters after the vote.

As the result was read out, cheers erupted outside the Senate building in Buenos Aires where thousands had gathered in support of the bill.

"After so many attempts and years of struggle that cost us blood and lives, today we finally made history," said protester Sandra Lujan, a 41-year-old psychologist. "Today we leave a better place for our sons and daughters."

Argentina now joins Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana as the only countries in South America that allow voluntary pregnancy terminations.

The continent has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. In El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, abortion is banned entirely and women can be sentenced to jail even for having a miscarriage. 

Pro-choice activists in Argentina have campaigned for years to change the abortion laws that date from 1921. Still, legalizing abortion in the majority Catholic country, which has a population of 44 million, has remained a controversial subject: the Catholic church argues that abortion violates the right to life.

Pope Francis, who is Argentinian, did not publicly condemn the bill, but many believed that comments he made on Wednesday indirectly addressed the issue when he spoke of life as a gift, and added: "All of us are born because someone wanted us to have life."

After the vote passed, anti-abortion activists expressed sadness.

The alliance of evangelical churches issued a statement calling it "a sad day." "Today Argentina regressed centuries in terms of civilization and respect for the supreme right to life," said the alliance.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who heads the world's biggest Catholic country, also slammed neighboring Argentina's decision. "I deeply regret the lives of Argentine children, now exposed to being cut from the wombs of their mothers with the consent of the state," he tweeted. 

(With inputs from Reuters, AFP)

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