BUENOS AIRES: Argentina's Senate on Wednesday began debating a bill that would legalize elective abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy in the homeland of Pope Francis, setting up a vote that could reverberate around the region.
The lower house of Congress has already passed the measure and Argentine President Mauricio Macri says he will sign it if approved by the Senate. A vote could come Wednesday or early Thursday. The Senate also could modify the bill and return it to the lower house.
Argentina now allows abortion only in cases of rape or risks to a woman's health and abortion rights activists say 3,000 women have died of illegal abortions since 1983. Opponents, meanwhile, insist life begins at conception and complain the bill could force doctors to perform the procedure even when they believe it is hazardous.
The issue has bitterly divided Argentines, pitting conservative doctors and the Roman Catholic Church against feminist groups and other physicians.
Hundreds of physicians have staged anti-abortion protests, in one case laying their white medical coats on the ground outside the presidential palace. Feminist groups, in turn, have held protests, often wearing green that symbolizes their movement or outfits based on author Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale."
Daiana Anadon, leader of the feminist group The Wave, said she and hundreds of other women will remain outside the legislature "until the final moment because we believe the power of the street will move the situation."
International human rights and women's groups are following the vote, and figures such as U.S. actress Susan Sarandon and Canadian author Atwood have supported the pro-abortion cause in Argentina.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, said Argentina has a "historic opportunity" to protect the rights of women. Amnesty International has told Argentine legislators that "the world is watching."
Catholic and evangelical groups protested abortion with the slogan, "Argentina, filicide (killing one's children) will be your ruin."
Women's movements across South America have been pushing against decades-old abortion prohibitions.
In neighboring Brazil, supporters and opponents of abortion recently testified before the Supreme Federal Tribunal in an extraordinary session on whether to allow elective abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
In Brazil, which is home to the world's largest population of Catholics and fast-growing evangelical faiths, abortion carries a punishment of up to three years in prison. There are three exceptions: if a woman is raped, pregnancy puts her life in danger, or the fetus is brain-dead.
In Chile, the Constitutional Court last year upheld legislation ending the Andean nation's absolute ban on abortions, permitting the procedure when a woman's life is in danger, when a fetus is not viable and in cases of rape.
Demonstrations in support of the Argentine abortion bill were also held in countries such as Bolivia and Mexico.