Lawmakers in traditionally conservative Argentina began a key session Wednesday ahead of a divisive vote on a bill to legalize abortion.
The debate has divided Argentinian society. Though it became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010, it remains strongly influenced by the Catholic Church and by its native son, Pope Francis.
The session in the lower house Chamber of Deputies began at 11:30 am (1430 GMT) and was expected to continue for up to 20 hours before the vote is taken.
Ahead of the session, 122 deputies in the 275-seat Chamber said they would vote against the bill, with 117 in favor. Around 30 undecided lawmakers were likely to determine the outcome.
Many lawmakers have said they would put their religious convictions aside to support the bill.
"Our function is to listen. It is not a personal decision, but it's about who we represent. Listening to different sectors of the province of Buenos Aires, I made the decision to vote in favor," said Fernando Espinoza of ex-president Cristina Kirchner's Citizen's Unity Party.
Espinoza spoke minutes after the session opened, as several previously undecided lawmakers indicated how they intended to vote, but it was as yet unclear how the shifting positions would affect the overall result.
As in most Latin American countries, abortion is currently illegal in Argentina, except in cases of rape or when the life or health of the woman is at risk.
- Putting religion aside -
The Church has campaigned fiercely against the new bill and the pope sent a letter to Argentine bishops calling on them to "defend life and justice."
The bill would decriminalize abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, and beyond that in cases where the fetus suffers from conditions not compatible with life outside the womb.
If passed, the bill faces another hurdle at the Senate.
The leader of the pro-abortion rights bloc, Daniel Lipovetzky, told the Chamber there were valid "public health reasons" why they should adopt the bill.
"We had three health ministers, with distinct visions because they belonged to distinct governments, and in this they agreed: the legalization of abortion improved healthcare for Argentinian women," he said.
But Horacio Goicoechea, an MP with the pro-government Radical Civil Union, countered that "beyond good intentions, (the bill) subverts a biological, biomedical, legal and historical order of the nation."
According to official health ministry statistics, over 17 percent of the 245 recorded deaths of pregnant women and girls in 2016 were due to abortion. NGOs say some 500,000 clandestine abortions a year are carried out every year.
- First debate -
Argentina overcame strong Church opposition to legalize gay marriage eight years ago, but the issue of abortion has never before been discussed in parliament.
Center-right President Mauricio Macri made it clear from the outset he was "in favor of life" but nevertheless encouraged open debate in Congress, after seven previous attempts failed to reach the assembly.
Argentines are as divided over the issue in the streets as in Congress.
Pro- and anti-abortion groups were holding demonstrations outside Congress from early Wednesday, with protesters saying they would remain until the vote, which was likely in the early hours of Thursday.
Last week an "interreligious prayer for life" was held in Buenos Aires, which was joined by leaders of the Catholic Church and other Christian currents, as well as Muslims and Jews.
Meanwhile, high-school students have taken over several Buenos Aires schools to support the decriminalization of abortion.
"The main demands are that the bill for safe, free and legal abortion be approved, that a comprehensive sex education law is complied with, and that there be protocols against gender violence in schools," said student leader Juana Garay.
- Deaths due to abortion -
Human Rights Watch said the vote was a landmark opportunity to end a harmful policy.
"With the vote in Congress, Argentina can join the global trend toward expanding legal grounds to allow abortion and affirming the rights and dignity of women and girls," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the New York-based rights group's Americas director.
On the other side, Vice President Gabriela Michetti said: "We have women who die from miscarriages, there is a public health issue, but I do not accept that to improve this situation we have to limit another life."
In Latin America, unrestricted abortion is legal in Uruguay, Cuba and Mexico City. In almost all countries, it is available in case of a risk to a woman's life or in cases of rape. However, a blanket prohibition exists in the Central American states of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.