BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Women's groups across Latin America vowed to keep fighting for a right to abortion despite the Argentine Senate's rejection of a bill early Thursday that would have legalized the procedure in Pope Francis' home country.
There were even expectations that the conservative government might now move to decriminalize abortions following the wave of demonstrations by feminist groups that pushed the legislation before Congress.
Senators debated for more than 15 hours before voting 38-31 in the early hours of Thursday against the measure, which would have allowed abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.
Anti-abortion forces celebrated blocking the legislation, which had already passed the Chamber of Deputies in June, and they remain strong in this predominantly Roman Catholic region, even as the church has lost influence due to secularization and an avalanche of sex abuse scandals.
But the grassroots movement behind the legislation was buoyed by coming closer than ever to achieving approval for abortion and activists vowed to keep pressing to expand women's reproductive rights.
"We were sad that abortion will continue to be clandestine in Argentina and will produce more deaths, but we left happy and proud of the fight that we're carrying through," said Marina Cardelli, a member of the Feminist Wave group. "We won because we looked at each other eye-to-eye and we realized how strong we are, and that abortion will eventually be legal."
Indeed, conservative President Mauricio Macri, who had promised to sign the legislation if it passed Congress even though he opposes abortion, said after the Senate's vote that the debate will continue.
"We've shown that we have matured as a society, and that we can debate with the depth and seriousness that all Argentines expected ... and democracy won," Macri said.
A legalization bill cannot be debated again until next year, but Macri's government is expected to include a provision to decriminalize abortion when it introduces legislation later this month for overhauling the penal code. Although that would not legalize the practice, it is seen as a compromise solution.
Maria Jose Benitez, a student who backed the campaign against legalization, said government could do more to help women financially and psychologically during pregnancy.
"The state needs to be present with vulnerable women so they don't have to reach the point of an abortion. ... After that the baby can be given up for adoption," Benitez said.
In recent years, Argentina has been at the forefront of social movements in the region. In 2010, it became the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage. More recently, the Ni Una Menos, or Not One Less, movement that was created in Argentina to fight violence against women has grown into a global phenomenon.
"Fortunately, women are gaining spaces and we've been learning from those spaces that they're demanding," said Gustavo Bayley, a tattoo artist wearing the abortion movement's green handkerchief on his arm. "It's the beginning of revolutions."
International human rights and women's groups closely followed the campaign, and figures such as U.S. actress Susan Sarandon and "The Handmaid's Tale" author Margaret Atwood supported the cause.
"This is a wave," said Claudia Dides, director of Miles, a Chilean non-governmental group that supports sexual and reproductive rights. "It not only influenced Chile, because we're close (to neighbouring Argentina), but all of Latin America, and countries in Africa and Europe."
Efforts to ease or tighten abortion restrictions have repeatedly emerged across Latin America in recent years as socially conservative countries grapple with shifting views on once-taboo issues. Chile last year became the last nation in South America to drop a ban on abortions in all cases, though several countries in Central America still have absolute prohibitions.
Demonstrations in support of the Argentine abortion measure were held in countries across the region as Argentina's senators debated.
"This is obviously a setback," said Ima Guirola of the Women Studies Institute, a group in El Salvador. But she said legalization advocates will still campaign in her country, which is one of the few in the world to ban abortion under all circumstances.
Under current Argentine law, abortion is allowed only in cases of rape or a risk to a woman's health. The Health Ministry estimated in 2016 that the country sees as many as a half million clandestine abortions each year. Activists estimated 3,030 women have died of illegal abortions since 1983 and framed the issue as a health matter.
The Catholic Church and others, including some physicians groups, strongly opposed the legislation, arguing it would violate Argentine law that guarantees life from the moment of conception.
"It's not about religious beliefs but about a humanitarian reason," Cardinal Mario Poli, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, told churchgoers at a "Mass for Life" held Wednesday night during the Senate debate. "Caring for life is the first human right and the duty of the state."
Pope Francis this year denounced abortion as the "white glove" equivalent of the Nazi-era eugenics program and urged families "to accept the children that God gives them."
In Brazil, which is home to the world's largest population of Catholics as well as fast-growing evangelical faiths, abortion is illegal, with three exceptions: if a woman is raped, pregnancy puts her life in danger, or the fetus is brain-dead. But the Supreme Federal Tribunal recently held an extraordinary session to hear arguments on whether to allow elective abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Rosangela Talib, a co-ordinator for Catholics for Choice, a leading advocate in Brazil for reproductive rights, said the defeat in Argentina will not deter the fight to decriminalize abortion.
"The bill may not have been approved now, but it will be in the future," Talib said.
Associated Press writers Eva Vergara in Chile, Marcos Aleman in El Salvador and Peter Prengaman and Stan Lehman in Brazil contributed to this report.
Luis Andres Henao And Almudena Calatrava, The Associated Press