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Argentina's lower house of Congress approves bill liberalizing abortion laws

The Argentine Chamber of Deputies voted Thursday morning to legalize elective abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

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Daniel Politi
Ralph Ellis (CNN)
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA (CNN) — The Argentine Chamber of Deputies voted Thursday morning to legalize elective abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The bill now goes to the more conservative Senate for consideration. President Mauricio Macri has said he won't veto the bill if Congress approves it, even though he opposes abortion.

Though it's unclear if the bill will become law, the issue has energized Argentine women, including thousands who filled the streets around Congress during 23 hours of tense debate. They broke into cheers and chants upon hearing the bill was approved.

In Argentina -- a Catholic country and the homeland of Pope Francis -- abortion is illegal except in cases of rape or when the woman's life is endangered. Supporters of abortion reform say even those legal abortions are difficult to obtain. Women who otherwise get abortions can be imprisoned for as long as four years.

The Chamber of Deputies' bill also would allow women to get legal abortions after 14 weeks if the pregnancy resulted from rape, the woman's health was at risk, or the fetus suffered severe conditions not compatible with life outside of the womb.

The vote was 129 to 125. It first was reported to have passed with 131 votes, but two congressmen claimed they pushed the wrong button and voted for the bill when they meant to vote against it.

Vocal protesters on both sides

Eliana, a 40-year-old baker, joined protesters for the first time Wednesday because, she said, she once felt forced to break the law.

"I had an abortion when I was 18," she said, refusing to give her last name because the practice is illegal. "I was drunk and was forced into nonconsensual sex with someone I had known since I was 10."

When Eliana wanted to get a legal abortion, a lawyer told her a judge would never approve because she knew her rapist.

"Luckily, I had enough money and contacts to go to a private doctor's office, and everything was done safely," she said. "But what about all the girls who can't do that? What about those who are afraid to tell anyone and don't have enough money to pay a doctor? That's why I'm here."

Meanwhile, Mercedes Foletto, 62, who wore a light blue handkerchief symbolizing the anti-abortion campaign, said she was there to be the "voice of the those who can't speak."

"They can call them fetuses, embryos, whatever they want, but the truth is that they are babies. They want to kill babies," she said Wednesday.

Global trend develops

Supporters of the Argentine bill were heartened by a recent vote in Ireland, another predominantly Catholic country. Irish voters in May approved an amendment to the country's constitution that would allow the repeal its near-total ban on abortion.

"With the vote in Congress, Argentina can join the global trend toward expanding legal grounds to allow abortion and affirming the rights and dignity of women and girls," José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said before Thursday's vote.

In Argentina, the #NiUnaMenos, or "not one less," movement thrust abortion rights fully into the public forum.

In 2016, women took to the streets in anger after a 16-year-old girl was abducted outside her school, drugged, repeatedly raped and killed. The movement then broadened to include issues such as LGBTQ rights and abortion rights.

"What was once taboo only a few years ago is now being openly and thoroughly debated across society," Giselle Carino, the regional director for the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region, said in an email interview with CNN. Carino said the trend toward legalizing abortion will continue to grow.

Argentina's Supreme Court decriminalized abortions in cases of rape six years ago.

But physicians are often hesitant to perform an abortion, even when it's legally sanctioned, Carino said. She said the laws are usually enforced against poor women, since women of means find ways to terminate their pregnancies with misoprostol, an abortion pill, or by going to a private clinic.

Supporters of the bill emphasize that legalization would reduce the number of poor women who try to end their pregnancies through cheap, unsafe methods.

Next: The Senate

Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Argentines favor the legalization of abortion and that there is a clear generational divide.

Lucas Romero, the head of Synopsis, a consultancy, said surveys have shown the Argentine Senate would probably reject the bill.

"Of course, we can't dismiss the role of public opinion and the pressure that approval in the lower house could bring," he said. "Those could both be factors that could change the scenario in the Senate, ... but for now it remains very uncertain."

Some members of the Chamber of Deputies said the debate was agonizing. Before the vote, lawmaker José Ignacio De Mendiguren tweeted that he was a Catholic but that "I will vote in favor of the law. My convictions are my own, they guide my life. But my convictions are not the truth."

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