Argentina’s upper house on Thursday rejected a landmark bill that would have more broadly legalized abortion, dealing a setback to proponents of more liberal laws governing the procedure across the region.

The vote, following a marathon session that ended early Thursday morning, came at a time when countries in the heavily Catholic region are reexamining the issue and considering expanding access to abortion. In Argentina, the vote in the upper house was the culmination of a months-long debate in a nation deeply divided over the practice.

As the Senate session debate stretched on from Wednesday into Thursday, passage of the law appeared less and less likely. In public statements, a majority of the senators expressed some form of opposition, while 31 voiced their intention to back it. Ultimately, the bill — which would have allowed abortions during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and had passed the lower house in June after a marathon debate — was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 38 to 31, with three lawmakers either absent or abstaining.

“This bill, which is a bad one, does not intend to reduce abortion,” said Esteban Bullrich, a senator from the province of Buenos Aires who opposed it. “It doesn’t intend to reduce that tragedy. It legalizes it. It legalizes the failure.” 

Although the bill failed, abortion law in Argentina could still change. Most senators rejected the measure as too broad but left the door open to future versions. The administration of President Mauricio Macri is also considering a measure that would decriminalize abortion in the penal code, so that women who have one would not face the threat of jail time, according to the Argentine news outlet Clarin.

Argentine law permits abortion in the case of rape, when the mother is mentally disabled or if there is serious risk to her health. Seeking an abortion for any other reason can land a woman in prison for as long as four years. Experts say the restrictions have forced thousands of women each year to seek risky clandestine procedures, many of which are performed in unsanitary conditions by unlicensed practitioners.

Health professionals involved in such operations also can go to prison for as long as six years.

In contrast, the bill would have allowed girls as young as 13 to terminate a pregnancy for any reason within the first 14 weeks. The measure also would have required that abortions be carried out within five days of the mother’s request.

On Wednesday, supporters and opponents rallied outside the National Congress ahead of the vote, separated by riot fences and police. Those in favor waved green banners and formed drum circles. Those against bore the light blue of the Argentine flag, and some carried a giant cardboard fetus.

Thousands of abortion opponents, sometimes from the most distant provinces of the country, arrived in Buenos Aires over the weekend. “God gave us life,” Anto Sosa, 33, of Entre Rios, said at a rally Saturday. “And trying to eliminate a life as the first solution — it’s not right.”


An abortion-rights activist bangs on a barrier while others warm up around a bonfire as Argentine lawmakers debate an abortion bill in Buenos Aires early Thursday. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

Even as abortion opponents celebrated, they said they knew the debate had divided the nation.

“We’re happy that the bill was rejected, but we’re going to have a big challenge moving forward as Argentines,” said Amilcar Matosiana, a pastor with the Tierra de Avivamiento church in the province of Buenos Aires.

Argentina is the latest nation in South America to grapple with the legalization of abortion. In 2012, Uruguay decriminalized it. Last year, lawmakers in Chile approved legislation legalizing abortion under limited circumstances. Last week, Brazil’s supreme court also began considering decriminalization, prompting impassioned debate and protests.

As the Argentine bill has made its way through Congress this year, its advocates have flooded the streets of the capital, as well as other major cities. But away from the more left-leaning, urban parts of Argentina, opposition to the bill has run deep.

Argentina is the birthplace of Pope Francis. Since assuming the papacy in 2013, the pontiff has largely refrained from inserting himself into domestic politics. He had not directly commented on the abortion bill, but two days before the lower house voted on the bill in June, he ­appeared to compare abortion sought for  birth defects to Nazi eugenics. “Last century, everyone was scandalized by what the Nazis did to ensure the purity of the race,” he said. “Today, we do the same but with white gloves.”

Religious figures nationwide have opposed the bill. An Ipsos poll in July indicated that about 49 percent of the population opposed legalizing abortion, while about 41 percent approved. About 11 percent did not express an opinion.

The debate is unfolding in a nation considered one of the most progressive in Latin America. In 2010, it became the first in the region to legalize same-sex marriage. And in next year’s elections, there will be a 50 percent legislative “gender quota.”

Over the past 13 years, six abortion bills have been introduced in Argentina’s Congress. None made it out of the lower house. This one managed to squeeze past after a 22-hour debate, with 129 lawmakers voting in favor and 125 against.

“I’m mad. I wanted to win,” said Maria Paz, 22, of Lomas de Zamora, a member of the socialist feminist group Las Rojas. “But the senators should feel worse. They’re turning their back on all of these women who want the right to abort.” 

Abortion opponents say Congress should focus more of its efforts on reproductive health and education services, which continue to lag behind those of more developed countries. About 60 percent of pregnancies in Argentina are unplanned, according to a government study in 2017.

Those in favor of the bill argued that it would have offered a safer alternative for women who seek risky illegal abortions. 

“Women abort,” Norma Durango, a senator from the province of La Pampa, said on the floor of the upper house Wednesday. “And they do it putting their lives in danger without the presence of the state, in insecure conditions and secret settings that we as legislators can no longer permit.” 

Faiola reported from Miami.