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Argentina To Vote On Abortion Legalization

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Argentina may soon become the first big country in Latin America to legalize abortion. This afternoon senators there began debating a bill that changes the law. They are expected to vote early tomorrow. But the Catholic Church wields a lot of power in Argentina, and it is strongly against the bill. Let's go to NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves.

Hey, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: What exactly does this bill propose?

REEVES: Well, Argentina, at the moment, only permits abortions in cases of pregnancies caused by rape or whether mothers are facing a serious health risk. This bill would allow abortions up to the 14th week, so that's a big change, although not entirely unprecedented in Latin America. Abortion is legal in a couple of relatively small countries - Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana. But, you know, Argentina's different. It's South America's second largest nation. The pope was born there. The Catholic Church, as you mentioned, wields a lot of influence. So legalizing abortion really would be a big deal.

We have been here before. In 2018 a bill legalizing abortion went before Argentina's upper House and wound up being rejected by just seven votes. But things have changed since then. A new government has taken office, and unlike the previous one, it's supporting this bill.

KELLY: It sounds like in Argentina, as in the U.S., abortion is so controversial, so highly charged. Give us a sense of what the conversation is like there.

REEVES: Well, you know, the country is deeply divided, and you can see that from TV footage of the scenes right now outside Congress, where the debate's underway in Buenos Aires. There's a large crowd chanting, singing, waving huge banners. Some are praying. Those in favor are wearing green. Those against are wearing sky blue. And they're separated by big, iron barriers sort of symbolizing the division over this issue, which has one side - on one side has, you know, women's groups and prominent figures from the art world and also the president, Alberto Fernandez - all in favor - and on the other side, you know, plenty of opposition, particularly religious groups, evangelicals as well as Catholics. Catholic bishops have reportedly been lobbying hard at the last minute, urging wavering senators to vote no. And the pope weighed in in the closing stages with a tweet signaling his opposition to this bill.

KELLY: And a reminder that he is from Argentina, so - has a stake in this. Given all of that, is this bill likely to pass? What are we expecting?

REEVES: Well, it's impossible to say. I mean, listening to the opening stages of the debate from Congress this afternoon, you can see how deep these divisions are. One senator said Argentina has for far too long turned a blind eye to clandestine, unsafe abortions and that women will continue to die unless the state intervenes. Another, though, argued that the bill is simply unconstitutional as it violates a child's right to be protected. So this is really a house divided. We don't know how it's going to end. We do know the session is expected to last all night. And assuming the vote goes ahead according to plan, it's expected to be very close. One leading Argentine news organization, La Nacion, has it at 34-32 in favor but says it could hinge on a couple of senators who haven't yet revealed which way they're voting.

KELLY: Fascinating. Is there any possibility it could deadlock, that there could be a tie?

REEVES: Yes. And if that happens, one of the biggest and best-known figures in Argentine politics steps into the limelight. I'm talking about former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. I'm sure you remember her. She's now Argentina's vice president and, as veep, holds the casting vote in the event of a tie in the Senate. She's expected to vote in favor.

KELLY: Well, come back and update us soon. That's NPR's Philip Reeves. Thanks.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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