On Wednesday, Argentina’s upper house began debating a landmark bill that would have broadly legalized abortion. As the debate, which occurred in a heavily Catholic region of the world, stretched into Thursday, passage of the law appeared less and less likely.

Ultimately, the bill — which would have allowed abortions during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and had passed the lower house in June after a marathon debate — was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 38 to 31, with three lawmakers either absent or abstaining.

“This bill, which is a bad one, does not intend to reduce abortion,” said Esteban Bullrich, a senator from the province of Buenos Aires who opposed it. “It doesn’t intend to reduce that tragedy. It legalizes it. It legalizes the failure.”

The bill would have allowed girls as young as 13 to terminate a pregnancy for any reason within the first 14 weeks. The measure also would have required that abortions be carried out within five days of the mother’s request.

Over the past 13 years, six abortion bills have been introduced in Argentina’s Congress. None made it out of the lower house, with the exception of the bill senators voted on Thursday morning.

“I’m mad. I wanted to win,” said Maria Paz, 22, of Lomas de Zamora, a member of the socialist feminist group Las Rojas. “But the senators should feel worse. They’re turning their back on all of these women who want the right to abort.”

Those in favor of the bill argued that it would have offered a safer alternative for women who seek risky illegal abortions.

“Women abort,” Norma Durango, a senator from the province of La Pampa, said on the floor of the upper house Wednesday. “And they do it putting their lives in danger without the presence of the state, in insecure conditions and secret settings that we as legislators can no longer permit.”

The law could still change

Argentine law permits abortion only in the case of rape, when the mother is mentally disabled, or there is serious risk to her health. Seeking an abortion for any other reason can land a woman in prison for as long as four years. Health professionals involved in the operation also can go to prison for as long as six.

Although the bill failed, abortion law in Argentina could still change. The administration of President Mauricio Macri is considering a measure that would decriminalize abortion in the penal code, so that women who have one would not face the threat of jail time, according to the Argentine news outlet Clarin.

Abortion in South America

Argentina, the birthplace of Pope Francis, is the latest South American nation to grapple with the legalization of abortion — something long banned throughout a region steeped in the power of the Catholic Church.

• In 2012, Uruguay decriminalized abortion.

• Last year, lawmakers in Chile approved legislation legalizing abortion under limited circumstances.

The public’s support and opposition to abortion in Argentina

Ahead of the vote on Wednesday, crowds of supporters and opponents rallied outside Congress, separated by riot fences and police. Those in favor waved green banners and formed drum circles. Those against bore the light blue of the Argentine flag and carried a giant, cardboard fetus.

An abortion rights activist holds a sign during a gathering as lawmakers are expected to vote on a bill that would legalize abortion in Argentina. (Reuters)
An abortion rights activist holds a sign during a gathering as lawmakers are expected to vote on a bill that would legalize abortion in Argentina. (Reuters)

An Ipsos poll in July showed that 49 percent of the population opposes abortion legalization, while 41 percent approve. An additional 11 percent don’t have an opinion.

Away from the more left-leaning urban parts of Argentina, Christian opposition to the bill has run deep in more rural, conservative communities.

Religious figures across the country have openly opposed the bill. Pope Francis had not directly commented on the abortion bill, but two days before the lower house voted on the measure in June, Francis appeared to compare abortion sought for reasons of birth defects to Nazi eugenics.

“Last century, everyone was scandalized by what the Nazis did to ensure the purity of the race,” he said. “Today, we do the same but with white gloves.”

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