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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentine activists launched a renewed effort Tuesday seeking to legalize elective abortions in the homeland of Pope Francis after narrowly falling short last year.
Lawmakers said they would introduce a bill that would legalize abortion for pregnancies up to 14 weeks. A similar measure last year passed the lower house of Congress but was defeated in the Senate under heavy opposition by religious groups.
The movement behind the legislation came closer than ever to approval and activists promised to continue their campaign to expand women's reproductive rights.
The new legislation was being introduced as demonstrations marking the International Day of Action for Women's Health were held in Argentina and other nations. Thousands of people marched through the streets of Buenos Aires chanting and waving flags.
The Argentine movement has gathered international support, with Penelope Cruz and several other actors at the Cannes film festival holding up the green handkerchiefs that symbolize the abortion movement.
"After last year's rejection, it's evident that abortion continues to be practiced in terrible conditions and women continue to die," said Amnesty International Argentina director Mariela Belski.
Argentina now allows abortion only in cases of rape or a risk to a woman's health. But Argentine women continue to undergo illegal abortions and thousands of women, mostly poor, are hospitalized each year for complications. The health ministry estimates more than 350,000 clandestine abortions are carried out each year, while human rights groups put the number as high as a half million.
The new legislation differs from last year's because it doesn't include a section that would have granted doctors the right "to a conscientious objection" to the process. It also would protect women who carry out their own abortions from any sanctions and includes a section focused on sexual education and counseling for women.
The measure would also establish prison terms of three months to one year for health establishments or doctors who "unjustifiably delay," block or refuse to carry out an elective abortion within the terms of the law. It would set longer prison terms if such actions damaged a woman's health or caused her death.
"Being a mother should be a choice, not an obligation," said Jenny Duran, a member of the abortion rights campaign. "We call on lawmakers to do the right thing — listen to women's voices and respect our right to make our own decisions about our bodies."
Ruling party lawmaker Daniel Lipovetzky said "it won't be so easy" to debate a proposal that divides people so much during an election year. "But this is an issue that needs to be debated by society," he said.
Last year, conservative President Mauricio Macri had promised to sign the legislation if it passed Congress even though he opposes abortion. After it was rejected in the Senate, Macri said the debate would continue.
Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010. More recently, the Ni Una Menos, or Not One Less, movement created in Argentina to fight violence against women has spread worldwide.
Efforts to ease or tighten abortion restrictions have repeatedly emerged across Latin America and the Caribbean in recent years as socially conservative countries grapple with shifting views on once-taboo issues and the church continues to lose influence to secularism and a crisis of confidence after an avalanche of clerical sex abuse scandals.
Pope Francis last year denounced abortion as the "white glove" equivalent of Nazi-era eugenics programs and urged families "to accept the children that God gives them."
The pope recently said abortion can never be condoned, even when the fetus is seriously ill or likely to die. He also urged doctors and priests to support families to carry such pregnancies to term.
"Is it licit to throw away a life to resolve a problem?" the pontiff asked. "Is it licit to hire a hit man to resolve a problem?"
His comments came as the abortion debate is rousing renewed debate in the U.S. with state initiatives seeking to restrict the procedure.
In 2017, Chile became the last country in South America to drop a ban on abortions in all cases, though some countries in Central America still prohibit abortions without exceptions.
Associated Press journalists Almudena Calatrava, Debora Rey, Paul Byrne and Leo Lavalle contributed to this report.
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