Lawmakers in Argentina's lower house will debate the government's bill to legalise abortion on Thursday, with a marathon session anticipated and a vote on the initiative expected in the early hours of Friday morning.
Analysts predict the government has the votes to carry the motion in the Chamber of Deputies, though its fate is uncertain when it comes to the Senate, which is traditionally more conservative.
If the lower house approves the measure, the bill would go to the upper house immediately. Speculation in the local press suggests the initiative could be put to a vote in the upper house by as early as December 16, though others predict a vote could take place after Christmas and before the New Year.
In a plenary session, a total of 77 lawmakers in the lower house signed a majority opinion in favour of the bill on Wednesday, with 30 dissenting and four abstentions. That followed two days of committee hearings, in which 70 speakers on both sides of the debate offered expert opinions on the proposal.
The text of the bill authorises the voluntary interruption of pregnancy "until week 14 of gestation," while it also includes a key section that allows “conscientious objection" from healthcare professionals, though those opposed must "refer the patient to be treated" immediately, whether in the public or private health systems.
The proposal has seen some minor alterations since entering Congress, with changes made to sections laying out rules for those aged under 16 and tweaks to the rules concerning conscientious objection, as well as the obligations that health workers must comply with.
"I am confident that this time it [the bill] will be approved. There is a very strong change because in 2018 we did not have the support of the Executive. I am very hopeful. There will be no problems in Deputies," Nelly Minyersky, one of the founders of the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal Seguro y Gratuito ("National Campaign for the Right of Legal, Safe and Free Abortion"), an alliance of more than 300 feminist groups, said last week.
Despite multiple legislative efforts to legalise abortion, only once, in 2018, has a bill ever reached the floor of Congress, when it passed the lower house but was rejected in the Senate. This is the first time that a bill to legalise abortion has been backed by the Executive.
According to the Noticias Argentinas news agency, lawmakers on both sides have vowed to keep Thursday's debate courteous and civil, though emotions are expected to run high both in Congress and outside on the streets.
Crowds of campaigners began sleeping out on Wednesday night in preparation for the momentous occasion. Debate, which is due to begin at 11am, could stretch as long as 30 hours, with an end time of 4am Friday morning.
The Buenos Aires City Security Ministry has cut off a number of streets around the City centre, with a strong police presence expected to ensure trouble does not arise, especially after the events that occurred during the recent wake for late football icon Diego Maradona.
The plaza in front of Congress has been split in two, with two concentration points. The 'blue' anti-reform camp will meet at the intersection of Avenidas Hipólito Yrigoyen and Entre Ríos, while the 'green' pro-reform camp will converge on Avenidas Callao and Sarmiento.
President Alberto Fernández announced in mid-November that his government had sent a bill to allow the Legal Interruption of Pregnancy (ILE) in Argentina to Congress, saying he wanted to guarantee "that all women [in Argentina] have access to the right to comprehensive healthcare ."
"It was always my commitment that the State accompany all pregnant people in their maternity and take care of the life and health of those who decide to interrupt their pregnancy. The State must not ignore any of these realities," he said at the time.
The government has also submitted another bill that will create a ‘1,000 day plan’ to strengthen existing support and care measures for women during pregnancy and in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. The aim is to ensure that no individual is forced to abort due to their economic circumstances.
"The Executive has taken a decision to make the enormous problem that we have with clandestine abortions visible," Legal and Technical Secretary of the Presidency, Vilma Ibarra, one of the authors of the bill, said on Tuesday.
She warned that "the policy of criminalisation of abortion has failed,” saying that “threatening women with jail in the face of the decision to interrupt a pregnancy" was wrong. She said the aim was not to “promote abortion” but to “reduce” it.
An estimated 370,000 to 520,000 clandestine abortions are carried out in Argentina every year, Ibarra recently said. The Ministry of Health estimates that there are 39,000 hospitalisations each year due to complications in clandestine practices.
Abortion is currently legal in Argentina only in the cases of rape or danger to the pregnant woman’s life.