BUENOS AIRES — Argentina’s Senate on Thursday narrowly rejected a bill to legalize abortion, dealing a stinging defeat to a grass-roots movement that pushed reproductive rights to the top of the country’s legislative agenda and galvanized activist groups throughout Latin America.
The vote gripped the nation as opposing camps fought to sway undecided senators until the final hours. As legislators debated the bill into the early hours of Thursday, thousands of advocates on both sides waited outside Congress in the winter cold, and the Roman Catholic Church held a “Mass for Life” at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral.
Proponents of the bill — which would have allowed abortions during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy — had hoped Argentina would begin a sea change in reproductive rights in a largely Catholic region where 97 percent of women live in countries that ban abortion or allow it only in rare instances.
In the end, thirty-eight lawmakers voted against the bill, 31 voted in favor of it and two abstained.
Just weeks ago, the abortion-rights campaigners appeared to have a good chance of success, stunning opponents and thrilling women’s rights advocates in nearby countries who were inspired by the Argentine battle. But opposition in Argentina hardened as Catholic Church leaders spoke out forcefully against abortion from the pulpit and senators from conservative provinces came under intense pressure to stand against the bill.
While the proposal’s defeat was considered a major setback for the activists who backed it, analysts said the movement’s improbable rise had already begun to change the region in ways that would have been impossible just years ago.
“Abortion rights was a priority and it will be deeply discouraging to have come this far and fail,” said Benjamin Gedan, an Argentina expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. But he said women’s rights advocates already had achieved successes.
The Argentine campaign is credited with inspiring debate on a variety of women’s issues — including domestic violence — in a socially conservative region where such subjects have long been taboo.
On Wednesday, demonstrators rallied in support of the Argentine bill in Uruguay, Mexico, Peru, and neighboring Chile, where they gathered in front of the Argentine Embassy in Santiago, chanting and wearing the green handkerchiefs that became the symbol of Argentina’s abortion rights movement.
Activists in Argentina already have scored a victory with the passage of a law that seeks to have an equal number of male and female lawmakers.
“If we make a list of the things we’ve gained and the things we’ve lost, the list of things we’ve gained is much bigger,” said Edurne Cárdenas, a lawyer at the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a human rights group in Argentina that favors legalized abortion. “Sooner or later, this will be law.”
In the region, only Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana and Mexico City allow any woman to have an early-term abortion.
On Thursday, emotions in Argentina were raw after weeks of suspense when it seemed possible the bill might become law.
“We will no longer be silent and we won’t let them win,” said Jimena Del Potro, a 33-year-old designer who fought back tears as she spoke. “Abortion will be legal soon. Very soon.”
Opponents expressed relief.
María Curutchet, a 34-year-old lawyer, was smiling despite spending almost eight hours in the cold to make her feelings clear.
“It was a very emotional day,” she said. “We were out in huge numbers and showed that we will defend the two lives, no matter the cost.”
For Argentina, the debate over abortion has tugged at the country’s sense of self.
It is the birthplace of Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s Catholics, who recently denounced abortion as the “white glove” equivalent of the Nazi-era eugenics program.
But the country in recent years has inched away from a close church-state relationship.
In 2010, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to allow gay couples to wed — a move the church fought with a vigor similar to its battle against abortion, organizing protests involving thousands of people. Francis, then the archbishop of Buenos Aires, called that bill a “destructive attack on God’s plan.”
The fight over abortion divided the political class and forced leaders to grapple with their personal and political convictions. President Mauricio Macri, a center-right leader who opposes legalized abortion, told allied lawmakers to vote their conscience and said he would sign the law if it were approved by Congress.
Some prominent female political leaders came out publicly against the measure, including Vice President Gabriela Michetti.
But Mr. Macri’s health minister, Adolfo Rubinstein, testified in Congress in favor of legalization and has estimated that some 354,000 clandestine abortions are carried out every year in the country. Complications as a result of those abortions are the single leading cause of maternal deaths in the country, according to Mariana Romero, a researcher at the Center for the Study of the State and Society, a nonprofit organization.
The organized movement that pushed the bill started in 2015 with the brutal murder of a pregnant 14-year-old girl by her teenage boyfriend. Her mother claimed the boyfriend’s family didn’t want her to have the baby.
As debates about violence against women on social media grew into wider conversations about women’s rights, young female lawmakers gave a fresh push to an abortion bill that had been presented repeatedly in the past without going anywhere.
In June, the activists scored an unexpected victory when the lower house of Congress narrowly approved a bill allowing women to terminate pregnancy in the first 14 weeks. Current law allows abortions only in cases of rape or when a mother’s life is in danger.
While the measure failed in the Senate, it made some inroads. Among the senators who voted for it was Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who as president had opposed legalizing abortion.
“The ones who made me change my mind were the thousands and thousands of girls who took to the streets,” she said before the vote early Thursday.
Despite the loss, the close vote — and how closely it was watched in neighboring countries — was an indication that the ground on women’s rights had shifted somewhat not only in Argentina, but the region.
In neighboring Brazil, activists this month urged the Supreme Court to rule that the country’s abortion restrictions, which are similar to Argentina’s, are unconstitutional.
Advocates in Chile, meanwhile, have been fighting to expand abortion rights, building on last year’s partial legalization, as have those in El Salvador.
“Society as a whole has moved forward on this issue,” said Claudia Piñeiro, a writer and abortion-rights activist in Argentina.
“Church and state are supposed to be separate, but we’re coming to realize that is far from the case,” Ms. Piñeiro said as it became clearer that the push for legalization would lose. “That will be the next battle.”
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