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Waiting for a decision in Argentina

The legalization of abortion is an important step in a continent of restrictive laws against women

Within the next two weeks, Argentina may enact a time-limit law for the termination of pregnancy. The president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has not yet clarified whether she will support this ample legalization of abortion, but the promoters of the bill trust she will not use her right of veto against the parliamentary majority.

If the bill goes through, it could mark an important turning point in a continent full of the world's most restrictive anti-abortion laws, which in recent years has receded toward ultraconservative positions. This was the case of Nicaragua, which in 2006, and with the favorable vote of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, prohibited abortion even in the case of rape. And it was the case of Uruguay three years ago, where ex-President Tabaré Vázquez vetoed the legalization of abortion passed by the parliament.

Latin America, where the principal problem is still social inequality, owes a pending debt to its women. The general discrimination against them is aggravated in certain countries such as Nicaragua and Guatemala by a pervasive gender violence so rooted in custom and law that sexual abuse and rape is more a matter of shame for the victim than a crime to be prosecuted.

The iron alliance between the Catholic hierarchy and the ruling classes throughout Latin America has resulted in legislation that deprives the woman of any right of decision. Today there are time-limit pregnancy-termination laws only in Cuba and Mexico City, and only in a handful of countries is abortion permitted for therapeutic reasons (risk to the mother's life), or where there has been a rape.

The result is hundreds of thousands of illegal abortions, the first-ranking cause of maternal deaths in the region, and a further inequality that dooms millions of young women to poverty — as opposed to the well-to-do classes, who can always travel to Cuba or Miami to terminate a pregnancy in safe medical conditions. The cases of young girls who have been raped and become mothers against their wishes are common coin throughout the region, though the only cases that normally get into the news are extreme ones, such as the nine-year-old girl in Brazil who was raped by her stepfather, became pregnant with twins and, having aborted, was excommunicated by the Church.

In such a context, a time-limit law in Argentina is an important sign of hope that the law may move forward in other countries in the region, which are still seeing new attempts from the powerful so-called "pro-life" movements to turn back the clock, as has happened recently in Colombia.

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