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After Hours-Long Debate, Argentine Senators Vote To Legalize Abortion

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, there's a giant domed Congress building that looks a little similar to the one in Washington. That building faces a plaza, and on that plaza, in this morning's very early hours, people were celebrating...

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: ...Celebrating because Argentina's Congress had just voted to legalize abortion. Argentina is the first big Latin American country to go so far. NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves has been following events and joins us. Philip, good morning.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What was the scene overnight?

REEVES: Well, that crowd you heard had been there pretty much all night and some from sort of early afternoon yesterday. Many of them were young women. Both sides of this debate were there in force - those in favor wearing green, those against sky blue - divided by iron barriers. And when the vote was announced, you know, the scenes on the those-in-favor side were very emotional. There were tears of joy, singing, dancing. People let off fireworks.

But it was a hard blow for those who are against this. They'd been there for hours, too. They'd been praying at an altar, an altar set up outside. And they're now, obviously, very sad and in some cases angry because they see this law as legalizing abortion - you know, that legalizes abortion, is a violation of a child's right to life. And some are saying it's unconstitutional and that they'll go on fighting it.

INSKEEP: Yeah, so that iron barrier really visually symbolizing what a divisive issue this has been. But what exactly did Argentina's lawmakers approve?

REEVES: Until now, abortion's only been permitted in cases of rape or where the mother's life was seriously at risk. This new law makes abortions legal in the first 14 weeks. Supporters of it say that tens of thousands of Argentine women and girls are hospitalized each year because of unsafe underground abortions and that more than 3,000 women have died in the last few decades because of this. And they hope that this will do a lot to help end that. The president, Alberto Fernandez, is a key supporter of the law. He says abortions will now be safe and legal and free.

But, you know, Steve, this is - there are bigger sort of historical echoes here. The Catholic Church has wielded huge influence in Latin America for centuries, as you know, and it's still very powerful. Argentina is the birthplace of Pope Francis. The church fought very hard against this, right up to the wire. And the pope himself made his opposition clear, you know, emphasizing this with a last-minute tweet, and the church has lost this fight.

INSKEEP: How close was the vote?

REEVES: Well, we thought it was going to be very, very close because there were a couple of wavering senators, and, you know, no one knew which way they'd go. But in the event, it was 38 to 29 with one abstention - so a wider margin than many expected. One reason for that is that we've been around this block before in 2018, when it appeared that a similar bill would be approved, only to fail in the Senate by a small margin. The difference now is that there's a new government in place, and this legislation was one of President Fernandez's campaign promises.

INSKEEP: Philip, what are the implications of this across Latin America, this huge, traditionally Catholic region that you cover?

REEVES: Well, those who've campaigned - some of them for decades - to secure this change in Argentina, hope that there will now be a sort of ripple effect across the landscape. At the moment, abortion is largely banned in the region, except in cases of rape or where the mother's life is at risk. But it's only legal in a couple of relatively small countries - Uruguay, Guyana and Cuba. So these activists hope that there's going to be a domino effect and it'll energize people, for example, fighting to get abortion removed from the criminal code in Colombia.

But let's not be, you know, naive about it - in the largest nation, Brazil, there's very unlikely to be any change. The president, Jair Bolsonaro, has said while he's in power, abortion will remain illegal.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves. Thanks so much.

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