BUENOS AIRES — Argentina’s Senate is on the verge of a vote that could turn the Catholic nation, homeland of Pope Francis, into the largest country in Latin America to legalize abortion, a move that would reverberate widely in a region where the church has long wielded power.
The measure would make it legal for women to end pregnancies of up to 14 weeks, and its fate appears to rest in the hands of a handful of senators who remain undecided or are keeping their position under wraps.
Argentina’s lower house of Congress approved the bill earlier this month, by 131 to 117 votes. It also approved a similar bill two years ago, albeit by an even narrower four-vote margin, only to have it fail in the Senate, 38-31.
Abortion-rights activists are optimistic this time, in large part because the bill was introduced by the president, Alberto Fernández, and was one of his campaign promises, unlike in 2018, when then-president Mauricio Macri said he was personally against legalization but vowed not to veto the bill if it was approved.
“We are optimistic, but not triumphalist,” said Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Argentina’s minister of women, gender and diversity.
The president, the vice president and many members of the executive branch have been working to bolster support for the measure, Mariela Belski, the head of Amnesty International in Argentina, said. “The government has really done its homework.”
If the bill goes through, and is signed by the president, Argentina would join Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana in making abortion legal on request — instead of only in cases of rape or if the pregnancy poses a risk to the mother’s health, as is the case now in Argentina.
The debate in the Senate is expected to start late afternoon on Tuesday and go on for many hours, perhaps into early Wednesday morning.
The known voting intentions of senators indicate a virtual tie, according to an estimate by Amnesty International, which will likely make the evening a nail biter for opponents and supporters. Two senators who were expected to oppose legalization are unlikely to take part: José Alperovich is on leave after he was accused of sexual assault and former president Carlos Menem has been hospitalized.
The 2019 election won by Mr. Fernández also brought a few new pro-legalization lawmakers into the Senate, but the vast majority of those voting on Tuesday participated in the debate two years ago, making the ability of the president and his allies to persuade those senators who are on the fence crucial to any victory.
Adding to the potential drama, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the vice president, would cast the deciding vote in the case of a tie. Ms. Fernández, also a former president, had long opposed legalizing abortion, but said that a surge of feminist activism in Argentina, led largely young women who took to the streets in droves to support the measure, had changed her mind.
Pope Francis has spoken up against the legalization drive, publicly praising a women’s group from impoverished neighborhoods for their activism against abortion.
Some of those who oppose legalization decried the pressure being exerted by the executive branch, and said the country’s focus should be on other issues at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has plunged an already weak economy deeper into uncertainty.
“The vote is very tight and we are extremely disgusted by how this has turned into a political game,” said the Rev. Rubén Proietti, the head of the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches of the Argentine Republic. “We can’t believe this is a priority with all the problems that the country has right now.”
As abortion-rights activists have become more organized in the two years since the bill failed in Congress, so have those opposed to the practice. The Catholic and evangelical churches, which operated independently to defeat the legalization vote two years ago, have joined forces this time.
“We have been in talks from the beginning,” Mr. Proietti said.
Activists on both sides of the issue are planning to surround Congress overnight, from Tuesday to Wednesday, to make their voices heard. Barriers have been set up to divide them and prevent conflict.
Both sides intend to settle in for a long night, as they wait for a decision likely to have great repercussions in their own country and across Latin America.
“Evangelical leaders in several countries are on the alert about what will happen in the Senate,” Mr. Proietti said. “What happens in Argentina is often replicated across the region.”