Lawmakers in Argentina approved a bill Wednesday to legalize abortion, making it the first large Latin American country to ditch stringent antiabortion regulations in a vote expected to boost feminist movements across the predominantly Catholic region.
After 12 hours of debate in Buenos Aires, the senate voted 38 to 29 to approve a bill promoted by President Alberto Fernández, who has made women’s rights a priority for his government. Argentina will now permit elective abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy, scrapping current legislation that only allows the procedure when a pregnancy results from rape or when a mother’s health is at risk.
The outcome was a blow to the ever-expanding evangelical movement and the Catholic Church in the country of 45 million. Pope Francis, who was born in Argentina, had actively backed antiabortion groups.
It is a momentous victory for a feminist movement, known for its green bandannas and energetic demonstrations, that didn’t give up even after the senate had rejected an abortion legalization bill just two years ago.
Although the movement had been around for years, it had gained strength following huge protests in 2015 triggered by the slaying of a 14-year-old pregnant girl. From there, backed by growing numbers of young people and a new generation of feminists, the movement gained momentum in its struggle to make abortion legal.
“This is a victory for the women’s movement in Argentina, which has been fighting for its rights for decades,” said Mariela Belski, executive director of Amnesty International in Argentina, which advocated for the abortion law. “Today we have grown as a society.”
In much of Latin America, abortion is only permitted if the health of the mother is in danger, in cases of rape or if the fetus is unlikely to survive. A handful of countries in the Caribbean and Central America ban it outright. Until now, only Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana—along with Mexico City and the Mexican state of Oaxaca—have permitted elective abortion.
Advocates for decriminalizing abortion in the region hope the move in Argentina will inspire movements battling to change reproductive laws in Colombia, Chile and other countries.
“For me, this is unstoppable,” said Catalina Calderon, the Colombia-based director of the Women’s Equality Center, which advocates for women’s rights in the Americas. “The women’s movement in Argentina has for many years been a force that has mobilized and inspired women in Latin America.”
Convincing the Senate to pass the abortion bill—coming just weeks after the lower house gave its approval 131 to 117—wasn’t a simple task for Mr. Fernández’s leftist government, which has been in power for just over a year.
Many senators are from far-flung rural provinces, where people are more conservative and the Catholic Church and evangelicals are more influential than in the big cities. But Jose Di Mauro, director of the news website The Parliamentarian, said Mr. Fernández had relentlessly worked to convince lawmakers to vote for the bill.
“They were senators who were among a small group of undecided and who ended up learning in favor of the bill,” said Di Mauro.
Among them was Sergio Leavy, from sparsely populated Salta province in the far north. He began his speech ahead of the vote saying that he had “hated abortion.” But in the end, he said his personal views didn’t matter, that he would vote in favor and that “let’s let God and the fatherland judge me.”
Some lawmakers made impassioned pleas to turn back the bill.
“Isn’t it incoherent that you can’t buy alcohol or cigarettes but you can decide, without permission from your parents, to get an abortion?” said Sen. María Belén Tapia.
The fact that many Argentinians didn’t support expanding abortion rights wasn’t lost on lawmakers. A poll carried out by the pollster Giacobbe and Associates in November found that 60% of respondents didn’t want to see elective abortion approved versus 27% who did. Another poll showed 49% felt the abortion bill should have been handled at another time because of the urgency of other issues, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the country’s economic troubles.
Outside congress on Tuesday and into Wednesday, antiabortion protesters waved the Argentine flag, prayed and shouted slogans in the hope of getting senators to vote against the bill.
“I’m here because I don’t believe in this law,” said Roxana Luna, 59, a homemaker. “You can’t make a decision to sacrifice innocents.”
Another opponent Fernando Cecin, 52, a doctor, said, “No one can decide who lives and who dies. Our mission as doctors is to save lives. Death is a failure of medicine, of science.”
Separated by police barriers, demonstrators who advocated for legalization spoke about the rights of women to decide when to end a pregnancy and how restrictions on abortion endanger their lives. Though health data is sketchy, nearly 40,000 women and girls were admitted to public hospitals in Argentina for health complications arising from abortions or miscarriages in 2016.
Dr. Carolina Comaleras, an obstetrician who came out to support legalization, said she had treated women who had attempted to abort on their own. Some had used knitting needles or tampons with corrosive substances, she said.
“When their health deteriorates, it’s a very difficult situation to resolve,” Dr. Comaleras said. “I’m happy that this law passed because it’s vital for women.”
Another woman who supported the law and came out to the congress, Sofia Cernicchiaro, 29, a teacher, said no woman wants to have an abortion.
“But it’s a decision only she can take,” she said. “You have to want motherhood, or it can’t be.”
— Silvina Frydlewsky in Buenos Aires contributed to this article.
Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com
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