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Argentina braces for abortion vote in Pope's homeland

Carolina Morales, a 24-year-old from Mendoza, Argentina, was 18 when she found out that she was pregnant....

Posted: Aug 7, 2018 4:50 PM
Updated: Aug 7, 2018 4:50 PM

Carolina Morales, a 24-year-old from Mendoza, Argentina, was 18 when she found out that she was pregnant.

At seven weeks into her pregnancy, with the support of her mother and sister, she took Misoprostol -- a medication often used to cause abortions. She kept the illegal procedure a secret for years, fearful of what the repercussions might be.

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"Six years ago, no one would talk about this," Morales, now a vocal member of Argentina's abortion rights movement, told CNN. "After so many years ... we are taking our fight where it should be: the country's Senate, the place where the state should protect and be responsible for vulnerable women."

Argentina's Senate is set to vote Wednesday on a bill that would legalize elective abortion in the predominantly Catholic country, homeland of Pope Francis.

The bill, which has fueled contentious debate in Argentina, would expand abortion rights to allow women to end a pregnancy in the first 14 weeks. Current laws allow the procedure only in cases of rape, or when the mother's health is at risk.

The legislation faces a razor-edge vote in Argentina's more conservative Senate after it was narrowly passed by the lower house of Congress in June. And it has lost some momentum after an opposition senator withdrew her support over the weekend.

Abortion rights activists say the bill's approval would be a watershed moment for Latin America, where more than 97% of women of reproductive age live in countries with restrictive abortion laws, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank focused on reproductive rights. If passed, Argentina would become only the fourth country in Latin America to broadly legalize abortion, after Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana.

But the bill faces stiff opposition.

While Pope Francis hasn't addressed the legislation directly, he did speak out strongly against abortion just days after the bill was approved by the lower house -- comparing abortion to avoid birth defects to Nazi eugenics. The pontiff also issued a letter in March, as the abortion debate began, urging Argentines to "make a contribution in defense of life and justice."

"Abortion is the ultimate red line for the church," Celia Szusterman, trustee of the UK board of Pro-Mujer and director of the Latin America program at the Institute for Statecraft, told CNN. "It's clear that, for the Pope, it would be a personal humiliation if his home country, Argentina, votes in favor of decriminalization."

Since the Pope's comments, abortion opponents have pushed back against the bill, with thousands rallying in rural areas of the country and in the streets of Buenos Aires, wearing blue bandanas emblazoned with the slogan "Save both lives." The Catholic Church plans to hold a "Mass for Life" in the capital Wednesday as senators debate the bill.

"The ones behind the pro-abortion campaign are people who have economic power, particularly in Buenos Aires," Camila Duro, member of nongovernmental organization Frente Joven, part of the "Let's save both lives" campaign, told CNN. "They don't have the support of the majority of the country."

In testimony before Congress, Duro emphasized that "legal abortion also kills," adding that it doesn't solve maternal mortality.

According to the Argentine Health Ministry's official statistics, 43 of the 245 recorded deaths of pregnant women and girls in 2016 were due to abortion -- making it the number one cause of maternal deaths in the country. But the number could be underreported because abortion is illegal, leaving some women to resort to dangerous methods of ending pregnancies.

On Sunday, women dressed in red cloaks and white bonnets like those worn in "The Handmaid's Tale" -- Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel in which women are forced into child-bearing servitude -- rallied in support of the bill in the capital's Remembrance Park, holding green headscarves, a symbol of the abortion rights movement.

The so-called "green wave" protests that have gained traction in recent months grew out of Argentina's #NiUnaMenos, or "not one less," movement against gender-based violence. And the bill's supporters were buoyed earlier this year when President Mauricio Macri announced that he wouldn't veto the legislation, even though he opposes abortion.

"The president giving a green light to this debate, despite his personal position, did a lot in allowing this discussion to move forward," Tamara Taraciuk Broner, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch, told CNN.

The discussion has been playing out online as well.

Cecilia Ousset, a gynecologist from Tucumán, Argentina, published an open letter on Facebook in support of decriminalizing abortion titled "I'm not neutral." Ousset, who worked at a public hospital in Mendoza between 2000 and 2004 at the height of the country's economic crisis, says she witnessed patients who had tried to perform abortions with anything available to them.

"My record was 18 patients in one day, more patients with complications due to abortions in precarious conditions rather than births," Ousset, who is Catholic, told CNN. "Some patients had abortions using knitting needles and we could never know who was responsible for that. They arrived terrified, knowing that they could go to jail."

Ousset said while working at the hospital she realized there was another reality: abortions were being performed in private clinics with better conditions. "I realized that abortions were performed on women who belonged to different economic classes, regardless of religion. Women abort according to their economic options, but the ones with few or almost no resources are the ones who die."

"If you are poor, you put your life at risk," Ousset added.

Ousset's letter on Facebook was shared more than 80,000 times, but not all of the commenters approved.

"This is to have double morals; on one side I regret and save those who want to abort, are you aware that you are killing a life???" wrote one.

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