After lengthy debate, Argentine senators vote to legalize abortion: NPR

Argentina will legalize abortion after a successful Senate vote early Wednesday. The move could send shockwaves throughout the strongly Roman Catholic region of Latin America.


In Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, there is a giant dome-shaped Congress building that looks a bit like the one in Washington. This building faces a square, and in that square, very early this morning, people were celebrating …


INSKEEP: … Celebrate because the Argentine Congress had just voted to legalize abortion. Argentina is the first major country in Latin America to go this far. NPR South America correspondent Philip Reeves follows events and joins us. Philippe, hello.


INSKEEP: What was the scene at night?

REEVES: Well, that crowd that you heard was there pretty much all night and part since early afternoon yesterday. Many of them were young women. Both sides of this debate were there in force – those for green, those against sky blue – divided by iron barriers. And when the vote was called, you know, the scenes on the part of the supporters were very moving. There were tears of joy, singing, dancing. People shot fireworks.

But it was a blow to those who are against it. They had also been there for hours. They had prayed in front of an altar, an altar set up outside. And they’re now, obviously, very sad and in some cases angry that they see this law as legalizing abortion – you know, that legalizes abortion, is a violation of a child’s right to life. And some say it is unconstitutional and they will continue to fight it.

INSKEEP: Yeah, so this iron barrier really visually symbolizes how much of a divisive issue this has been. But what exactly did Argentinian lawmakers approve?

REEVES: Until now, abortion was only allowed in cases of rape or when the mother’s life was in serious danger. This new law makes abortions legal within the first 14 weeks. Its supporters say tens of thousands of Argentinian women and girls are hospitalized each year because of unsafe clandestine abortions and that more than 3,000 women have died as a result in recent decades. And they hope it will do a lot to help end this. The president, Alberto Fernandez, is a key supporter of the law. He says abortions will now be safe, legal and free.

But, you know, Steve, it’s – there’s bigger historical echoes here. The Catholic Church has been a huge influence in Latin America for centuries, as you know, and it is still very powerful. Argentina is the birthplace of Pope Francis. The church fought real hard against it, to the wire. And the Pope himself made his opposition clear, you know, underlining that with a last minute tweet, and the church lost that fight.

INSKEEP: How close was the vote?

REEVES: Well, we thought it was going to be very, very close because there were a few hesitant senators, and, you know, nobody knew in which direction they were going. But in this case, it was 38-29 with one abstention – so a wider margin than many expected. One of the reasons for this is that we already circled this bloc in 2018, when it emerged that a similar bill would be approved, only to fail in the Senate by a small margin. The difference now is that there is a new government in place, and this legislation was one of President Fernandez’s campaign promises.

INSKEEP: Philip, what are the implications of this across Latin America, this huge traditionally Catholic region that you cover?

REEVES: Well, those who campaigned – some of them for decades – for this change in Argentina are hoping that there will now be some kind of ripple effect across the landscape. At present, abortion is widely banned in the region, except in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger. But it’s only legal in a few relatively small countries – Uruguay, Guyana, and Cuba. These activists therefore hope that there will be a domino effect and that it will energize people, for example, who are fighting to have abortion removed from the penal code in Colombia.

But let’s not be, you know, naive about it – in the biggest country, Brazil, it’s highly unlikely that there will be a change. President Jair Bolsonaro has said that as long as he is in power, abortion will remain illegal.

INSKEEP: Philip Reeves of NPR. Thank you so much.

REEVES: You’re welcome.

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