BUENOS AIRES — Argentina on Wednesday became the largest nation in Latin America to legalize abortion, a landmark vote in a conservative region and a victory for a grass-roots movement that turned years of rallies into political power.
The high-stakes vote in the Senate gripped the nation into the early morning, and the measure’s approval — by a wider-than-expected tally of 38 to 29, with one abstention — came after 12 hours of often dramatic debate, exposing the tensions between the long-dominant Roman Catholic Church, whose influence is waning, and a growing feminist movement.
“I didn’t change my way of thinking about abortion,” said Lucila Crexell, a senator from the southern Neuquén Province who had kept her vote under wraps and abstained from a vote on the matter in 2018. “I changed my focus on how I think the issue should be approached. It isn’t about feminism or religion. Clandestine abortion is a silent figure that kills, harms and writes very sad stories.”
As it unfolded, the Senate debate was closely followed by masses of both opponents and supporters of abortion rights, who camped out in the plaza around the neo-Classical Palace of Congress, chanting, cheering and praying as they tried to sway a handful of undecided senators to their respective camps.
Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernández, has promised to sign the bill into law, making it legal for women to end pregnancies for any reason up to 14 weeks. After that, there will be exceptions allowed for rape and the woman’s health.
The effects of the legalization vote are likely to ripple across Latin America, galvanizing reproductive-rights advocates elsewhere in the region and leaving them hopeful that other socially conservative nations could follow suit.
Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana are the only other countries in Latin America to allow abortion on request. Argentina, like a number of other countries in the region, had previously permitted abortion in cases of rape or if the pregnancy posed a risk to a woman’s health; other Latin American countries have stricter limits or total prohibitions.
“Legalizing abortion in Argentina is a gigantic victory that protects fundamental rights and will inspire change in Latin America,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, the Americas deputy director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s predictable, however, that this will also mobilize pro-life groups.”
Supporters of the legislation cheered and hugged as soon as the vote total was announced, confirming that what they had been fighting for had become reality.
“It’s one of those things that you anticipate for so long that when it finally happens you can’t believe it and don’t know what to do with yourself,” said María Blanco, 27. “I couldn’t stop crying.”
Argentina’s legalization of abortion was a striking rebuke of Pope Francis, who injected himself into the bitter political debate in his homeland on the eve of the vote, praising a women’s group from impoverished neighborhoods for its activism against abortion. It was also a setback for the country’s fast-growing evangelical Protestant churches, which had joined forces with the Catholic Church in opposing the change.
“I feel a profound sense of anguish that in this country that I love the right to life is not respected,” said Abigail Pereira, 27, who had been out in Buenos Aires protesting against legalization. “But I will keep on fighting.”
The vote was a major legislative victory for Mr. Fernández, Argentina’s center-left president, who has made women’s rights central to his administration’s agenda.
But primarily it was a win for Argentina’s grass-roots abortion-rights advocates, who have recently paved the way for other deep shifts in the country’s cultural and political landscape — including marriage equality, gender parity initiatives and transgender rights — and made Argentina a bellwether of changes that have gained broader traction in the region.
Argentina’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, approved the bill earlier this month, by a vote of 131 to 117. It also passed a similar measure two years ago, only to have it fail in the Senate, 38 to 31; the president at the time, Mauricio Macri, said he was personally against legalization but vowed not to veto the bill if it made it through Congress.
Mr. Fernández campaigned for the presidency on a platform that included abortion rights, gender equality, and gay and transgender rights, and he has followed through on those promises to a degree that has surprised even some of his supporters.
Supporters of the abortion measure, including Senator Norma Durango, said legalizing abortion would simply bring the practice out of the shadows. Researchers say hundreds of thousands of underground abortions are performed in Argentina every year.
Around 40,000 women were hospitalized for complications related to abortions in 2016, according to the latest available data from the Health Ministry, while at least 65 women died between 2016 and 2018 from complications, according to a report by Argentina’s Access to Safe Abortion Network.
“I sit here today representing all the women who have died having clandestine abortions,” said Ms. Durango, who was the first lawmaker to speak during the debate that began Tuesday. “Abortion is a reality, and it has been taking place since time immemorial.”
The effort to loosen Argentina’s abortion laws is decades old, but it got a boost from the feminist movement Ni Una Menos, which formed in 2015 to protest violence against women and has since been the driving force behind the abortion legalization campaign.
The symbol of that effort in Argentina — green handkerchiefs — has caught on in several Latin American countries, including Mexico, where women sporting them have poured into the streets demanding greater support for their rights.
“The green movement that started in Argentina has taken over the entire region,” said Paula Ávila-Guillen, executive director of the Women’s Equality Center. “Any activist from Mexico to Argentina is wearing the green handkerchief as a symbol for legalizing abortion.”
Just hours before the Senate took up the measure on Tuesday afternoon, Pope Francis, who as pontiff has sought to distance himself from political debates in Argentina, issued a message that appeared directed to the handful of senators who had not yet made their position clear.
“The Son of God was born an outcast, in order to tell us that every outcast is a child of God,” he wrote on Twitter. “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.”
Catholic and evangelical leaders had called on supporters to observe a day of prayer and fasting on Monday to reflect on “the killing of so many innocent children.” Church leaders have been working throughout the year to galvanize the faithful, and large anti-abortion marches have taken place across the country.
On Tuesday, opponents of legal abortion, who tend to wear baby blue, displayed a large doll that looked like a fetus, which they sprayed with fake blood.
Mr. Fernández, a law professor who has long supported legalizing abortion, made it a campaign promise, and an early legislative priority once he took office at the end of 2019. The decision entailed political risks, as he took the reins of a troubled economy that has been in recession for two years and soon after ordered one of the strictest coronavirus lockdowns in the world.
But Mr. Fernández and his vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, came to see abortion as one of the few items on their agenda they could advance amid a torrent of challenges. Ms. Kirchner, who led Argentina as president from 2007 to 2015, opposed legalizing abortion during most of her political career.
Her position shifted in the lead-up to the vote in 2018, when tens of thousands of women demonstrated across Argentina in support of making access to abortion on request legal. Ms. Kirchner, who was then a senator, has said her daughter played a key role in changing her mind.
“Through our years of activism, we’ve managed to get people to change their positions,” said Celeste Mac Dougall, an abortion rights advocate. “Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the most obvious example that opinions can change.”
Melina Alegre, a 34-year-old retail worker, said it seemed particularly significant that the law that the women’s rights movement had been pushing for so long was approved right before the new year.
“2020 was a horrible year,” she said, “and here we are, ending it with a historic victory.”
Daniel Politi reported from Buenos Aires, and Ernesto Londoño from Rio de Janeiro.