BUENOS AIRES — Argentina on Wednesday became the largest nation in Latin America to legalize abortion, a landmark vote in a conservative region and a victory for a grass-roots movement that turned years of rallies into political power.
The high-stakes vote in the Senate gripped the nation into the early morning, and the measure’s approval — by a wider-than-expected tally of 38 to 29, with one abstention — came after 12 hours of often dramatic debate, exposing the tensions between the long-dominant Roman Catholic Church, whose influence is waning, and a growing feminist movement.
As it unfolded, the Senate debate was closely followed by masses of both opponents and supporters of abortion rights, who camped out in the plaza around the neo-Classical Palace of Congress, chanting, cheering and praying as they tried to sway a handful of undecided senators to their respective camps.
Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernández, has promised to sign the bill into law, making it legal for women to end pregnancies for any reason up to 14 weeks. After that, there will be exceptions allowed for rape and the woman’s health.
The effects of the legalization vote are likely to ripple across Latin America, galvanizing reproductive-rights advocates elsewhere in the region and leaving them hopeful that other socially conservative nations could follow suit.
Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana are the only other countries in Latin America to allow abortion on request. Argentina, like a number of other countries in the region, had previously permitted abortion in cases of rape or if the pregnancy posed a risk to a woman’s health; other Latin American countries have stricter limits or total prohibitions.
“Legalizing abortion in Argentina is a gigantic victory that protects fundamental rights and will inspire change in Latin America,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, the Americas deputy director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s predictable, however, that this will also mobilize pro-life groups.”
Argentina’s legalization of abortion was a striking rebuke of Pope Francis, who injected himself into the bitter political debate in his homeland on the eve of the vote, praising a women’s group from impoverished neighborhoods for its activism against abortion. It was also a setback for the country’s fast-growing evangelical Protestant churches, which had joined forces with the Catholic Church in opposing the change.
“I feel a profound sense of anguish that in this country that I love the right to life is not respected,” said Abigail Pereira, 27, who had been out in Buenos Aires protesting against legalization. “But I will keep on fighting.”
The vote was a major legislative victory for Mr. Fernández, Argentina’s center-left president, who has made women’s rights central to his administration’s agenda.
But primarily it was a win for Argentina’s grass-roots abortion-rights advocates, who have recently paved the way for other deep shifts in the country’s cultural and political landscape — including marriage equality, gender parity initiatives and transgender rights — and made Argentina a bellwether of changes that have gained broader traction in the region.
Argentina’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, approved the bill earlier this month, by a vote of 131 to 117. It also passed a similar measure two years ago, only to have it fail in the Senate, 38 to 31; the president at the time, Mauricio Macri, said he was personally against legalization but vowed not to veto the bill if it made it through Congress.
Mr. Fernández campaigned for the presidency on a platform that included abortion rights, gender equality, and gay and transgender rights, and he has followed through on those promises to a degree that has surprised even some of his supporters.
Supporters of the abortion measure, including Senator Norma Durango, said legalizing abortion would simply bring the practice out of the shadows. Researchers say hundreds of thousands of underground abortions are performed in Argentina every year.
Around 40,000 women were hospitalized for complications related to abortions in 2016, according to the latest available data from the Health Ministry, while at least 65 women died between 2016 and 2018 from complications, according to a report by Argentina’s Access to Safe Abortion Network.
“I sit here today representing all the women who have died having clandestine abortions,” said Ms. Durango, who was the first lawmaker to speak during the debate that began Tuesday. “Abortion is a reality, and it has been taking place since time immemorial.”
The effort to loosen Argentina’s abortion laws is decades old, but it got a boost from the feminist movement Ni Una Menos, which formed in 2015 to protest violence against women and has since been the driving force behind the abortion legalization campaign.
The symbol of that effort in Argentina — green handkerchiefs — has caught on in several Latin American countries, including…