Argentina’s Senate is set to vote on a broad legalization of abortion, which would make the country of 45 million by far the largest in Latin America to approve the procedure.
Passage of a bill permitting elective abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy would be a win for women’s rights groups in a country where the procedure is allowed only when a pregnancy results from rape or when a women’s life is at risk. The vote in the Senate could come as early as Tuesday, and would follow the lower house’s approval earlier this month.
The legalization of abortion in Argentina could have ramifications throughout Latin America. Though elective abortions are permitted in Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana, most countries in Latin America regulate it as Argentina does, while a handful have an outright ban.
Well-organized abortion-rights movements in countries including Colombia and Chile are looking to Argentina for inspiration and momentum as their societies increasingly grow more socially liberal.
“We believe this is going to have an impact on the region,” said Vilma Ibarra, a legal counsel for President Alberto Fernández who is spearheading the effort to win approval. “This is a struggle that is taking place in the world, to advance and win rights. And if the vote is favorable, I think women’s rights will advance and could consolidate.”
But the ever-growing evangelical movement in Argentina, and the Catholic Church, remain strongly opposed to legalization. Pope Francis is an Argentine and has, in carefully worded letters to allies in Argentina that have been made public, reproached the idea.
“It’s not legal to eliminate a life to resolve a problem,” the pope said in a November missive to a group of neighborhood women who wrote to him opposing abortion. Argentina’s Catholic hierarchy also has come out against the measure.
The vote will be the second time in two years that Argentina’s Senate has considered a bill to legalize abortion. A 2018 bill fell short of passing by 38 to 31.
The conservative president at the time, Mauricio Macri, was personally opposed to abortion, though he said he would have signed the bill if lawmakers had approved it. Abortion-rights groups said they believe they have more momentum this time, since Mr. Fernández, of the leftist Peronist coalition, has made legalizing abortion a central tenet of his 12-month-old government.
“The world is watching, and with women talking about what’s happening, we hope the votes will go our way,” said Ana Correa, a lawyer and prominent advocate for legalization.
But those who track Congress and aides to a handful of senators who are undecided said in interviews that passage is far from guaranteed.
Jose Di Mauro, director of the news website The Parliamentarian, estimated last week that 33 lawmakers support the legislation, 34 oppose and four are undecided. Further complicating matters for the abortion-rights movement, Mr. Di Mauro said, is that some lawmakers who had publicly said they would support the bill have since wavered, asking for modifications.
Among those whose vote for abortion cannot be counted on is Sen. Alberto Weretilneck, from largely rural Rio Negro province. He is open to elective abortion, but a person close to him said “the bill has problems he does not like.”
In far northern, sparsely populated Salta province, Sen. Sergio Leavy has been against abortion in the past but the government has tried to flip him, with the president making personal appeals, said a spokesman for the lawmaker.
“It’s an uncomfortable situation for everyone,” the spokesman said. “He never told me what his decision will be.”
Polls have generally shown that citizens of this heavily Catholic and Evangelical country are opposed to legalization. Sixty percent of respondents told the pollster Giacobbe and Associates in Buenos Aires last month they didn’t want to see elective abortion approved versus 27% who did. The polling firm has shown a rise in those opposed to legalizing abortion since 2018, said Jorge Giacobbe, its director.
Polling conducted in October by the firm Opinaia showed that 49% felt the abortion issue should be treated at another time because of the urgency of other issues. Twenty-four percent felt it should happen in the short term.
Some opponents say Mr. Fernández has been pressing for quick approval because he needs a victory after Argentina logged one of the world’s worst per capita death rates from Covid-19. The country is also struggling economically, with growth slated to contract 10.9% in 2020.
Forty-three days will pass from the moment he proposed the bill until the Senate is to vote. In 2018, it took nearly five months for that bill to reach a vote.
“This is an issue that deserves a debate,” said Father José María Di Paola, a leader in the anti-abortion movement who is close to Pope Francis. “What the senators need to focus on is resolving a health crisis. We have poverty, hospitals barely functioning. I’m in a province with barely enough beds for Covid patients. And here we are talking about abortion.”
For others, legalization couldn’t happen soon enough. A woman who uses the alias Belén arrived in 2014 at a remote hospital with vaginal bleeding. The doctor diagnosed a miscarriage, but prosecutors accused her of having had an illegal abortion, which she denied. Convicted, she served time until 2016, when she was released in the wake of protests championing her case.
“The law has to change because many women die because of clandestine abortions, not to mention those who are jailed,” said Belén, who provided The Wall Street Journal with audio answers to questions. “The truth is, I dream that every day this becomes law.”
Those who favor legalization have created a potent movement of women who demonstrate outside of the Congress building and other landmarks, wearing green bandannas, banging drums and singing songs. Their message is that Argentina’s restrictions on abortion endanger women’s lives, though the official data is sketchy.
The Health Ministry in 2018 reported 35 deaths from complications related to abortion—both legal and illegal. Human Rights Watch said nearly 40,000 women and girls were admitted to public hospitals for health complications arising from abortions or miscarriages in 2016.
Rodrigo Madero of the group Provida is among those most active in the fight against legalization. He said that opposition to elective abortion is particularly pronounced in the country’s vast countryside, where the bulk of senators opposing legalization come from.
“In Buenos Aires, there are more of those from the other side,” he said, referring to abortion-rights advocates. “If you go into the interior you’ll see that in a country so big, the majority are pro-life.”
—Silvina Frydlewsky in Buenos Aires contributed to this article.
Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com
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