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With Narrow Vote, Argentina Takes Big Step Toward Legalizing Abortion

Abortion rights activists celebrate Thurdsay outside the Argentine Congress in Buenos Aires, shortly after lawmakers in the country's lower chamber passed a bill legalizing abortion. The bill's chances look uncertain in the upper chamber, but that did little to dampen excitement among its supporters.

It took more than 22 hours of debate, stretching overnight into Thursday morning, but finally Argentina's lower house of Congress has decided: By a 129-125 vote, the Chamber of Deputies passed a bill legalizing abortion before 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The bill now heads to the country's Senate, where its chances of passage appear less rosy — but if it does get a yes vote in the upper chamber, Argentine President Mauricio Macri has said he will sign it into law, despite his own reservations.

Outside Argentina's Congress on Thursday morning, a massive crowd of demonstrators bearing green flags and dressed in warm clothing erupted in cheers at the news.

For weeks, the bill has been a flashpoint of controversy in a country where abortion is illegal in all situations except in cases of rape or danger to the woman's health. The predominantly Catholic country, homeland of Pope Francis, has seen strong opposition to the measure from the church — as well as marches packed by people who support it, including a big one earlier this month in Buenos Aires.

It says something about the intensity of the political debate that, on the eve of the World Cup, the typically soccer-crazed nation is talking instead about the abortion bill — so much, in fact, that hashtags related to the topic had the lion's share of Twitter's trending topics in the country.

And for supporters, Thursday's vote represents a milestone.

"We're celebrating this first step taken by the Chamber of Deputies in its decision to move towards decriminalizing abortion," Mariela Belski, Amnesty International Argentina's executive director said in a statement Thursday.

"New legislation could end a vicious circle where women have no option but to risk their lives, their health, and their freedom if they are sent to prison," she added. "Classifying the legal termination of a pregnancy as a crime has no basis in international law."

Human rights groups say some 500,000 abortions — or "an estimated 40 percent of all pregnancies" — occur secretly each year in the country of more than 44 million, regardless of the legal prohibition.

The debate in Argentina comes just weeks after Ireland, another traditionally Catholic country, voted in a popular referendum to repeal its constitutional ban on abortion, opening the door to legislation legalizing the practice in certain situations.

And it follows similar moves by several of Argentina's neighbors in Latin America, where abortions are often strictly prohibited in most cases. Chile last year rolled back parts of its own abortion ban, just a few years after Uruguay's move to do so.

That's not to say Argentina's measure is guaranteed the same path.

Far from it, in fact: The church remains adamantly opposed to the bill, and the Catholic News Agency reports of several anti-abortion marches and petitions against the bill that have gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures.

"We are building a law on innocent blood," one lawmaker argued, according to the BBC.

While that argument didn't sway a majority Thursday — many lawmakers in the Senate have already announced they will oppose the legislation.

The BBC reports that the Senate is expected to vote on the bill in September.

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