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Argentina's senate votes in favour of passing abortion bill into law - here's why it's big news

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Argentina's Senate is due to vote on abortion rights for the first time since 2018
Argentina's Senate is due to vote on abortion rights for the first time since 2018   -   Copyright  Natacha Pisarenko/AP
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Argentina has legalised abortion for women in their first 14 weeks of pregnancy after two historic votes in Congress - an enormous move for the homeland of Pope Francis in a region known for its tight laws on the matter.

The abortion rights bill had already passed in the lower house earlier this month, and, taking into account the president's backing, it meant Tuesday's senate vote would be the final hurdle.

It was eventually passed after a 12-hour session in the upper house, with 38 votes to 29. One person abstained.

Outside, protesters from both sides of the debate had gathered to mark the moment. Those who favoured the bill were dressed in green - the colours of the pro-choice movement - while those against the bill wore blue.

"Our country is a country of many contradictions,” said Ester Albarello, a psychiatrist taking part in the rally in support of the bill. "It is the only one in the world that brought members of its genocidal military dictatorship to justice with all the guarantees. But we still don’t have legal abortion. Why? Because the church is together with the state."

On the other side was teacher Adriana Broni, who stood firm with her anti-abortion belief. "I will not teach that it is a right to kill, murder, a baby who has no voice," she said.

The pope also joined in, tweeting before the senate session began: "The Son of God was born an outcast, in order to tell us that every outcast is a child of God.

"He came into the world as each child comes into the world, weak and vulnerable, so that we can learn to accept our weaknesses with tender love.

Why is this move a big deal?

Latin American countries are notoriously strict when it comes to abortion legislation, with previously only three that make it completely legal: Guyana and Cuba have widely accessible procedures, while Uruguay allows elective terminations in the first 12 weeks; this increases to 14 weeks in cases of rape.

Mexico City has also legalised abortion in the first 12 weeks — but this hugely differs to state laws in other parts of Mexico. In Guanajuato, for instance, a woman can face 30 years in prison for such an act.

Argentina was no different — until now. The predominantly Catholic country previously prosecuted women who had abortions, and those who assisted. Exemptions were only made for pregnancies where the mother's life was at risk, or pregnancies that result from rape.

The new law means women can opt for an elective termination in the first 14 weeks, while procedures after this would only be legal in the case of the exemptions listed above.

Victor R. Caivano/AP
The abortion rights bill has been met with huge opposition from the Catholic church. Here, a woman presents the message: "Save both lives" at an anti-abortion protestVictor R. Caivano/AP

Why now?

Abortion rights in Argentina are not a new topic of discussion — there have been multiple other bills that have failed to pass in a decades-long battle — but this was a time experts thought the bill had a good chance.

The last vote in the senate on such a bill was in 2018, when pressure from conservatives and the Catholic church ultimately prevailed. It was rejected by 38 votes to 31, with two abstentions.

Despite this loss, an expert told Euronews at the time that this was still a sign of progress as the very fact the bill was being debated and considered properly was a step in the right direction.

"For the first time, despite having made six previous attempts in which it was not even discussed, it has been possible to debate the bill," said Veronica Undurraga, an expert in human rights and gender studies.

"It is known that in one or two more years it will be discussed again and it will be approved in Argentina."

Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Abortion rights activists celebrated earlier this month when Argentina's lower house passed the billNatacha Pisarenko/AP

What was actually different this time around?

For starters, there is a different leadership now than in 2018, and the attitudes on the topic from both have been radically different.

Conservative Mauricio Macri was president in 2018 when similar legalisation was last voted upon — something he did not support. The bill, therefore, narrowly passed in the lower house but failed to gain vital approval in the senate.

This time, however, the government has shifted left under President Alberto Fernández, who not only tabled the bill but pushed publicly for its backing.