Argentina's Senate to vote on historic bill to legalize abortion

Abortion rights activists wait outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires on December 10, as a bill to legalize abortion was debated in the lower house.

(CNN)Argentina could make history on Tuesday, as its Senate votes on a bill to legalize abortion.

The procedure has long been a divisive issue in the Catholic-majority country, with the impending vote galvanizing activists on both sides of the debate.
Campaigners for abortion rights and anti-abortion protesters have organized demonstrations in front of the Palace of the Argentine National Congress in Buenos Aires where the vote will take place.
Mariela Belski, executive director of Amnesty International Argentina and an ambassador for the global women's rights movement She Decides, was preparing to travel to the Senate on Tuesday afternoon, where she will watch the debate and subsequent vote unfold inside the chamber.
Belski told CNN that if the law passes, it will "open a new era for women's rights in our country."
She added that it would enshrine "what is really happening in this country into law. Every day people in here have abortions -- and this law is saying abortion exists."
Women's reproductive rights groups are hopeful that if the bill passes in Argentina -- the third-most populous country in South America -- it could set the stage for wider reform across the region.
Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Americas Division, told CNN that if the law passes, it will "send a very strong message to the region that it is possible to move forward with legalization of abortion -- even in a Catholic country like Argentina."
Protesters hold a banner that reads, "Legal Abortion," outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires on December 10.
Abortion in Argentina is currently only permitted when a pregnancy results from rape, or if a pregnancy endangers the life or health of the woman. In all other circumstances, abortion is illegal and is punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
Broner explained that people who currently have the right to access abortion don't really have "a real opportunity to do so because they face enormous barriers." Argentinian doctors have the option to "conscientiously object" to performing abortions, for example, if doing so would go against their religious or personal beliefs.
If the Senate votes in favor of the proposed law, abortion will be legalized in all cases up to 14 weeks.
Earlier this month, the country's lower house of Congress approved the landmark government-backed bill. The Chamber of Deputies passed the bill on December 11 with 131 votes in favor, 117 against, and six abstentions, before moving to the Senate for debate and Tuesday's decision.
Amnesty International welcomed the lower house approval and called on the country's Senate not to "turn its back" on women.
"Legal abortion is an imperative for social justice, for reproductive justice and for human rights," said Belski.
Belski said in a statement that the national debate on abortion had been positive over the last few years, as it had "succeeded in making visible the failure of the criminalization of women as a state policy."
"The Senate must now put an end to clandestine abortions. The legalization of abortion saves lives and addresses a key public health issue," she said.
Nearly 40,000 women and children in Argentina were hospitalized in 2016 as a result of unsafe, clandestine abortions or miscarriages, according to a report from HRW.
Citing National Health Ministry data, the HRW report found that 39,025 women and girls were admitted to public hospitals for health issues arising from abortions or miscarriages, with over 6,000 of them between the ages of 10 and 19.
If passed, experts say the new law will allow 13- to 16-year-olds with normal pregnancies to access abortion services without a guardian.
The bill also uses inclusive language that acknowledges that not all people who become pregnant identify as women.
Camila Fernandez, a self-identifying transgender woman, who was instrumental in the push for the bill's language that reads "people with ability to be pregnant," told CNN that the youth and the LGBTQ community were instrumental in challenging an "adult centrist and patriarchal power that has perpetuated privileges and injustices."
Argentina's current restrictions on abortion are replicated across South America.
Across Latin America and the Caribbean region, only Cuba, Uruguay, French Guiana and Guyana allow for elective abortions, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. In Mexico City and the Mexican state of Oaxaca, abortions are also available on request, but are severely restricted throughout the rest of Mexico.
By contrast, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname ban abortions in nearly all circumstances. Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama allow for abortion only if it's to preserve the woman's health or help save her life. 

'Troubling numbers'

In 2018, during the conservative administration of President Mauricio Macri, a previous attempt to legalize abortion in Argentina passed the lower house, but was narrowly defeated in the Senate.
Abortion rights advocates from a wide number of human and women's rights groups organized mass demonstrations across the country in support of that vote, donning green handkerchiefs to signify their backing -- a move that became known as the green wave.
Anti-abortion activists protest against the decriminalization of abortion in Buenos Aires on Monday.