Argentina's Senate has narrowly rejected a bill that would have legalised elective abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, dashing the hopes of reformers and pro-choice activists.
Lawmakers debated for more than 15 hours and voted Thursday 31 in favour to 38 against. The lower house of Congress had already passed the measure and President Mauricio Macri had said that he would sign it.
By couching the debate in terms of the public health threat of clandestine abortions, the pro-choice camp has successfully swayed traditional opponents. Earlier this year an Amnesty International survey found 60 percent of respondents supported legalisation.
Currently, abortion is allowed in Argentina only in cases of rape, a threat to the mother’s life or a non-viable fetus.
Between 350,000 and 500,000 illegal abortions are performed each year in Argentina. The health ministry has estimated that hundreds of women die from secretive and unsafe procedures, making it the leading cause of maternal death. An additional 45,000 to 60,000 women are hospitalised each year due to complications.
Demonstrators on both sides of the issue have rallied outside Congress, braving the cold and rain to stand vigil as the Senate debated the bill. Pro-choice activists donned green scarves or dressed as characters from "The Handmaid’s Tale", a novel about the oppression of women. Anti-abortion demonstrators wore baby blue for the Argentine flag and the Catholic Church.
There have been seven attempts to introduce elective abortion legislation over the years but this is the first bill to be debated in parliament, thanks in part to President Macri. Although he himself is anti-abortion, he has insisted on holding the vote.
"As a society it presents a peaceful scenario to promote and carry out change," he has said.
Members of both the leftist opposition and Macri’s conservative coalition were divided on the issue: the bill passed the lower house by only 4 votes in June. Since then, religious groups have stepped up efforts to prevent the change. Argentina, the homeland of Pope Francis, is still a very religious society. The Catholic and Evangelical churches have long exerted a strong political and cultural influence.
Others are angry about what they see as church interference in secular affairs. But such lobbying isn’t new, according to Marcela Lopez Levy, expert at the Institute of Latin American Studies. “The Catholic Church has a history of putting a lot of pressure on politicians and on doctors and public health officials to affect how they distribute contraception, never mind whether they can be involved in terminations and abortions,” she told FRANCE 24.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)