- - Thursday, June 14, 2018

BUENOS AIRES — Argentine lawmakers on Thursday took a giant step toward legalizing abortions in the homeland of Pope Francis, potentially setting a precedent for Latin America, where the procedure is widely outlawed.

After almost 23 hours of nonstop, often contentious debate, the lower house of Congress voted 129-125 to let women end pregnancies up through the 14th week after conception with only minimal requirements. The bill now heads to the Senate, where leaders predicted it could be tackled before a July winter recess.

President Mauricio Macri, who opposes abortion, has promised to sign the bill into law if it is approved. On the sidelines of a trip to northern Corrientes province, Mr. Macri would not weigh in Thursday on the outcome of the vote and limited his comments to congratulating lawmakers on a “historic” debate.

Supporters of legalization, who camped outside the congressional palace throughout a frigid Buenos Aires night, erupted in cheers and chants and waved the green handkerchiefs that had become a near-ubiquitous symbol for their cause.

On their placards, the familiar motto “Get your rosaries out of our ovaries” openly targeted the country’s influential Catholic Church, which vehemently opposed the bill in what critics suspected was a behind-the-scenes pressure campaign.

On the other side of the square, pro-life activists were trying to console one another.

“Don’t worry, people. We’ll keep working,” one activist said. “This isn’t over yet.”

The proposed law requiring clinics to “guarantee appropriate information [and] medical, social and psychological attention before and after” abortions had split Argentine society for months. Television coverage breathlessly followed the discussion throughout the night.

Voters in Ireland, another traditionally Catholic nation, overwhelmingly approved a measure just last month to ease access to abortion.

On a split screen with pro-life activists on the left and their pro-choice opponents on the right, viewers of Argentina’s TN news channel witnessed some unusual political realignments within an often hyperpartisan Congress.

“It’s a historic event. It will never happen again,” Speaker Emilio Monzo quipped when hard-line backers of leftist former President Cristina Fernandez applauded Fernando Iglesias, normally a congressional attack dog for the center-right Mr. Macri.

Mr. Iglesias was among more than 20 lawmakers of the governing Cambiemos bloc who broke with the president.

Despite his personal opposition to abortion, Mr. Macri paved the way for a conscience vote this year when he called for a debate that “we, as a society, owe ourselves.”

“The world’s second-highest [abortion] rate is that of South America, where abortion is illegal almost everywhere: 48 of every 1,000 women of reproductive age. In North America and Europe, where it’s legal, it [averages] 16 to 18,” Mr. Iglesias said. “If we are against abortion, we have to decriminalize it.”

Similar fractures appeared within opposition groups. A tiny three-member hard-left caucus was the only one to vote unanimously in favor of the proposal.

“I have every right — by conviction, by rationality, by doctrine and by being a Peronist — to be against this law today,” said Jose Luis Gioja, a longtime Fernandez ally and one of a handful of “no” votes among her Front for Victory bloc.

“Of [my] three sons, one has Down syndrome,” Mr. Gioja said. “I don’t want to imagine what might have gone through my mind if 41 years ago … someone had told me, ‘Look, the law lets you choose if you want this child or not.’” The son, he added, “is the light of my life and of my family.”

With the bill moving to the upper house, all eyes will be on Ms. Fernandez, who was elected to the Senate last year. During her two terms as president, she carefully steered clear of the abortion issue. She had insisted as recently as September that society was not prepared for such a debate.

If the abortion bill clears the final Senate hurdle, it is likely to face an onslaught of legal challenges. Critics have suggested that the country’s commitments under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child might render the legislation unconstitutional.

Argentina’s supreme court is likely to be the ultimate arbitrator of any lawsuits.

In neighboring Brazil, justices are set to hold public hearings on abortion in August.

Today, Argentina and Brazil allow abortions only in limited circumstances, such as when the pregnancy is the result of rape or endangers the expectant mother’s health. Uruguay and Guyana are the only nations in Latin America where the procedure is legal on a wider basis.

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