BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina’s Senate on Thursday rejected a bill to legalize elective abortion, a defeat for a grassroots movement that came closer than ever to achieving the decriminalization of the procedure in the homeland of Pope Francis.
Lawmakers debated for more than 15 hours before voting 38-31 against the measure that would have allowed abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. The decision could echo across Latin America, where anti-abortion forces remains strong even if the Roman Catholic Church has lost influence due to secularization and an avalanche of sex abuse scandals.
For long hours, thousands of supporters wearing green handkerchiefs that represent the effort to legalize abortion and opponents wearing light blue braved the heavy rain and cold temperatures in Argentina’s winter to watch the debate on large screens set up outside Congress.
The demonstrations were largely peaceful, but after the vote, small groups of protesters clashed with police, throwing firebombs and setting up flaming barricades. Police officers responded with tear gas.
Pushed by a wave of demonstrations by women’s groups, the lower house had already passed the measure and conservative President Mauricio Macri had said that he would sign it, even though he is anti-abortion.
After the decision, Macri said that the debate would continue. The government is also expected to include a measure in the penal code that would decriminalize abortion, although it would not legalize the practice.
“We’ve shown that we have matured as a society, and that we can debate with the depth and seriousness that all Argentines expected … and democracy won,” Macri said after the vote.
In Argentina, abortion is only allowed in cases of rape and risks to a woman’s health. Thousands of women, most of them poor, are hospitalized each year for complications linked due to unsafe abortions.
Backers of the measure said legalizing abortion would save the life of many women. The Health Ministry estimated in 2016 that the country sees as many as half a million clandestine abortions each year, with dozens of women dying as a result. The Catholic Church and other groups opposed it, saying it violated Argentine law guaranteeing life from the moment of conception.
In recent years, Argentina has been at the forefront of social movements in the region. In 2010, it became the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage. More recently, the Ni Una Menos, or Not One Less, movement that was created in Argentina to fight violence against women has grown into a global phenomenon.
The issue pitted the Catholic Church against feminist groups, physicians against physicians. While abortion rights activists waited for the decision under umbrellas, opponents gathered Wednesday night at a “Mass for Life” at the Metropolitan Cathedral, the church of Pope Francis during his tenure as the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
“It’s not about religious beliefs but about a humanitarian reason,” Cardinal Mario Poli, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, told churchgoers. “Caring for life is the first human right and the duty of the state.”
Pope Francis this year denounced abortion as the “white glove” equivalent of the Nazi-era eugenics program and urged families “to accept the children that God gives them.”
Activists estimate that 3,030 women in Argentina have died of illegal abortions since 1983.
“Let’s recognize that we’re facing a public health tragedy,” said Magdalena Odarda, a senator for Rio Negro province.
“We’re not deciding abortion yes or no. We’re deciding abortion in a hospital, or illegal abortion, with a clothes hanger, or anything else that puts a woman in a humiliating, degrading situation — a real torture,” she said.
Many women in Argentina use misoprostol to end first-trimester pregnancies. The drug is only sold under prescription, but for the poorest women the cost of the drug is out of reach.
For many of them, the methods used to induce an abortion include using an IV tube with a sharp wire clothes hanger or a knitting needle to try to break the amniotic sac inside the womb. Others drink herbs, insert dubious non-abortive pills in the vagina, or pump toxic mixtures, which can cause ulcers, hemorrhage and ultimately severe infections, and death.
For months, hundreds of doctors in Argentina had staged anti-abortion protests while feminists and other groups led even larger demonstrations in support of the measure, often wearing green that symbolizes the pro-abortion movement, or red cloaks and white bonnets like the characters from the novel-turned-TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
International human rights and women’s groups have been closely following the vote, and figures such as U.S. actress Susan Sarandon and “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood supported the pro-abortion cause.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, said that Argentina had a “historic opportunity” to protect the rights of women. Amnesty International told Argentine legislators that “the world is watching.”
Demonstrations in support of the Argentine abortion measure were held Wednesday in Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay and Ecuador.
Efforts to ease or tighten abortion restrictions have repeatedly emerged across the region in recent years.
In neighboring Chile, the Constitutional Court last year upheld a measure that would end that country’s absolute ban on abortions, permitting abortions when a woman’s life is in danger, when a fetus is not viable and in cases of rape. Chile had been the last country in South America to ban abortion in all cases, though several nations in Central America still have absolute prohibitions.
Cuba, Guyana, Puerto Rico and Uruguay permit early-term elective abortions, as does Mexico City.
“It’s a shame that we were not able to reach a consensus because the problem will continue to exist exactly as it did before we began this debate,” said former President Cristina Fernandez, who is an opposition senator.
“We need to make an effort to resolve this,” she said.