Wednesday 23 January 2019

Argentina rejects bid to liberalise law on abortion

A pro-abortion rights protester outside Congress shouts slogans after the bill was rejected in the Senate
A pro-abortion rights protester outside Congress shouts slogans after the bill was rejected in the Senate

Luis Andres Henao

Argentina's Senate has rejected a bill to legalise elective abortion, a defeat for a grassroots movement that came closer than ever to achieving decriminalisation 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 Catholic Church has lost influence due to secularisation and an avalanche of sex abuse scandals.

For many hours, thousands of supporters of the effort to legalise abortion and opponents braved 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, Mr Macri said that the debate would continue. The government is also expected to include a measure in the penal code that would decriminalise abortion, although it would not legalise 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," Mr Macri said after the vote.

In Argentina, abortion is allowed only in cases of rape and risks to a woman's health. Thousands of women, most of them poor, are hospitalised each year for complications linked to unsafe abortions.

Backers of the measure said legalising abortion would save the life of many women. The health ministry estimated in 2016 that the country has 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 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 legalise 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, doctors against doctors. While abortion-rights activists waited for the decision under umbrellas, opponents gathered 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 programme and urged families "to accept the children God gives them".

Activists estimate that 3,030 women in Argentina have died of illegal abortions since 1983.

"Let's recognise 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."

Irish Independent

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