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Abortion-rights activists participate in a demonstration outside Congress as lawmakers debate a bill on its legalization, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dec. 10, 2020.

Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press

In the clandestine world of abortions in Argentina, not all women are created equal. The difference is typically money, who you know, where you live and the consequences that follow.

In Felicidad Salinas’s community of Villa 31, one of the impoverished slums of Buenos Aires, there’s someone who sells black-market pills to women who want to terminate a pregnancy. Others turn to dangerous methods, such as inserting parsley stems in their vaginas to induce a miscarriage, said Ms. Salinas, 41.

For Carolina Risso, 40, and a middle-class mother in the capital, the options were different. A doctor friend wrote her a prescription for misoprostol, the World Health Organization-endorsed drug used to terminate pregnancies, which she purchased at a pharmacy, and administered without complication.

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But the procedure did not weigh as heavily on her mind as the fear that she could be jailed for breaking the law.

Both women recognize that social standing goes a long way to determining their fates. “It is poor women who die,” said Ms. Salinas, bluntly. “It’s not rich women who die.”

The range of risks and realities that exist for women is at the heart of a decades-long campaign to legalize abortion in Argentina, where women may face jail time for choosing to end their pregnancies.

Abortion has been illegal here since 1921, except in cases of rape, or if the life or health of the mother is at risk. That law drives thousands of women to terminate their pregnancies in secret. The Argentine government estimates that between 370,000 and 522,000 abortions occur in the country every year, the vast majority outside of the system and potentially risky. Some 38,000 women end up in hospital with complications due to botched abortions, officials say. Since 1983, more than 3,000 women have died as a result – four this year, although officials say that figure is likely higher.

But Argentina is now on the cusp of a watershed moment, as a bill to legalize the termination of a pregnancy up until the 14th week gets a final hearing before the Senate on Dec. 29.

The legislation already passed its first hurdle in the lower house of Congress earlier this month, as thousands of pro-choice supporters camped outside overnight in anticipation of the results. The Senate rejected a similar bill in 2018, but this time is different because the legislation has the endorsement of the new president, Alberto Fernandez, who made legalization a promise in his 2019 election campaign.

Only a handful of small countries have legalized elective abortion in Latin America – Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana – along with Mexico City and the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Several nations have outlawed it completely, while a few permit it in certain circumstances. Abortion-rights activists in Latin America hope a yes vote in Argentina will have a ripple effect across the region.

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The vote would also signify a crucial victory for one of the most visible feminist movements on the planet. Argentina is where the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement against gender-based violence started five years ago. Both it and the green scarf that symbolizes the country’s legalization campaign have been taken up by women across the continent.

But abortion remains a divisive issue in Argentina, a predominantly Catholic country and the home country of Pope Francis. Although dwarfed in numbers compared with pro-choice demonstrators, opponents of the bill also rallied and prayed outside the National Congress on the night of the vote in the Chamber of Deputies. A recent poll by the Centro Estrategico Latinoamericano de Geopolitica found that 54 per cent of Argentines favour legalizing abortion in all circumstances.

It’s not just about public health, advocates say, but a woman’s autonomy over her body. Although access to safe procedures has improved, women are still denied legal abortions, and misinformation and stigma fuel the clandestine market.

“If we don’t do anything, if we leave everything the same – something that we already know happens – and keep debating, we would be complicit in institutional violence,” said Karina Banfi, legislator for the province of Buenos Aires, during the Chamber of Deputies debate.

Legislators who are against the bill called it a smoke screen for a government that was failing to contain an economic crisis worsened by the pandemic and said that there are limits to what a woman should be able to decide.

“How terrible that a woman has to eliminate their descendancy in order to save her own existence – that’s not freedom,” said Dr. Maria De Urraza, a fervent opponent who spoke before a Senate committee analyzing the issue. She claimed that vulnerable women are being “pushed” into abortions, something other doctors refuted.

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The new legislation protects the right of the doctor to refuse to provide an abortion on moral or religious grounds but states that they must refer the woman to someone who will in a timely manner.

Dr. Adolfo Rubinstein, a former minister of health, called legalization a long-overdue debt with society that needs to be resolved.

“What you want to legislate does not have to do with beliefs, but with the state not ignoring the consequences of clandestine abortion,” Dr. Rubinstein said.

Dr. Betiana Olearo has seen that up close, following 14 years in a public-health clinic that serves lower-income people outside of Cordoba, the second-largest city in Argentina. She says the women who come seeking an abortion represent a cross-section of society and have their minds made up.

“Criminalization has not worked at all,” Dr. Olearo said. “Whether it’s legal or not, women are going to abort. What the law changes is the conditions under which the person is going to achieve their goals. It eliminates the huge gap that exists between those who are of a certain class and those who have a harder time accessing it.”

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