Nelly Maldonado was 28 when the baby she and her husband were expecting was diagnosed with anencephaly. The child would be born without major portions of the brain, skull and scalp. Only 1 in 10 such babies survive the first week after birth.

“One of the doctors told me that if God was sending me the baby like that, I had to accept it,” said Maldonado, of Tucuman, Argentina. “I am a Catholic, but I think women have the right to decide over our own body.”

Now Argentina, the predominantly Roman Catholic home of Pope Francis, could become the largest country in Latin American to legalize elective abortion. A bill that would make abortion legal in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy passed Argentina’s House of Deputies on Friday, as expected. It faces a tougher vote in the Senate, which could take it up this month.

Current laws permit the procedure only in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother — and even then, women sometimes have difficulty finding doctors who will perform it. The new legislation, introduced by President Alberto Fernández, has reopened a bitter debate that split the country two years ago.

Fernández, who campaigned last year on promises to make abortion “legal, safe and free,” has described it as a matter of public health and of choice.

“The debate is not saying yes or no to abortion,” he said last month. “The dilemma that we must overcome is whether abortions are performed clandestinely or in the Argentine health system.”

But the legislation has aroused strong opposition, including from perhaps the country’s most famous son.

Abortion “is not a primarily religious issue but one of human ethics,” Francis, a former archbishop of Buenos Aires, wrote last month to two women’s groups that had requested his input. “Is it fair to eliminate a human life to solve a problem?”

Elective abortion is illegal in most of Latin America, one of the world’s most restrictive regions for abortions. Growing efforts to increase abortion rights in recent years have yielded mixed results. The procedure is legal in Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and parts of Mexico. Chile overturned an absolute ban in 2017. A decriminalization effort in Brazil failed in 2018. Colombia’s top court declined to legalize the procedure in March, but the justices also disappointed opponents of abortion when they did not impose a total ban.

Argentine lawmakers last considered the issue in 2018. After a robust national debate, with protests and rallies on both sides, the legislation was passed in the House but failed in the Senate.

Elections last year have produced a more liberal Senate, and abortion rights activists have continued their campaign. A rally for abortion rights drew thousands of green-clad women to Buenos Aires in February. Fernández was poised to introduce his legislation in March, before the novel coronavirus disrupted national life.

The bill that was to go before the House on Thursday is the ninth to address the subject in the past 15 years. It is seen as having the best chance of becoming law.

“Congress must rise to the occasion and not miss the opportunity to recognize the rights of women, girls and others who can become pregnant to make free decisions about their bodies,” said Mariela Belski, the executive director of Amnesty International Argentina. “After years of resilience spent waiting for this moment, we must guarantee access to legal abortion in Argentina without any further delay.”

Activists raised alarms last year when a pregnant 11-year-old underwent a Caesarean section after doctors refused to grant her an abortion. The girl said she had been raped by her grandmother’s 65-year-old partner.

Health workers and activists warn that the country’s ban forces women to turn to clandestine abortions that put their lives at risk. Health Minister Ginés González García said last month that more than 3,000 women have died in Argentina because of such procedures since the early 1980s.

“We need the law because dozens of women continue to die,” said Betiana Olearo, a physician and activist.

Elizabeth Márquez, a Buenos Aires lawyer, called Fernández’s legislation “unconstitutional.” She said it would “institutionalize the killing of babies in a genocidal way.” The government should address the causes of unwanted pregnancies, she said, instead of destroying the results.

She also said doctors who object to abortion shouldn’t be required to perform them. Under the legislation, doctors could refuse to perform the procedure, but they would be required to refer the patients to doctors or centers that would.

Victoria Morales Gorleri, a member of Congress’s Chamber of Deputies who represents Buenos Aires, said the problem isn’t abortion but conditions that push women to make “a very hard decision.”

“I don’t agree with the project, because in Argentina, life begins with conception,” said Morales, a member of the center-right Together for the Change coalition. “Women’s rights are being violated, including their reproductive rights, but a problem cannot be solved with the elimination of a human life.”

Other women see the legislation as a pathway to empowerment. Lawyer and womens rights leader Soledad Deza said it challenges “motherhood as our destiny, an order of the patriarchy.”

When Maldonado had difficulty getting an abortion three years ago, she hired Deza, who is president of the feminist group Women x Women. It took more than a month to secure a safe procedure.

“This happens all the time,” Deza said. “I have a case of a woman who was put in jail after she had a miscarriage. Another woman who had a curettage without any anesthetics, and after that, she was taken by the police.”

The measure passed Friday after more than 20 hours of debate, with a vote of 131-117. Six lawmakers abstained. The Senate could vote as soon as Dec. 28. In the event of a tie there, the deciding vote would be cast by Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a former president.