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Argentine abortion bill rejected

Narrow defeat in Senate comes after 15 hours of debate

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Photographs by AP/LUISA BALAGUER

People opposed to decriminalizing abortion stand outside Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as they wait early Thursday for news of the Senate’s vote on the issue.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Argentina's Senate on Thursday rejected a bill to legalize elective abortion, a defeat for a grass-roots 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 remain strong even if the Roman Catholic Church has lost influence because of 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 weather 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 to unsafe abortions.

Backers of the measure said legalizing abortion would save the lives 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.

"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 abortion-rights movement, or red cloaks and white bonnets like the characters from the novel-turned-TV series The Handmaid's Tale.

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."

Information for this article was contributed by Almudena Calatrava of The Associated Press.

A Section on 08/10/2018

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