Buenos Aires (AFP) - Argentine lawmakers Thursday backed a bill legalizing abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, a historic step for Pope Francis's Catholic homeland, although the measure must still pass through the Senate.
Thousands of abortion rights activists cheered and hugged outside the Congress as the lower house Chamber of Deputies passed the bill by 129 votes to 125.
The bill will now go before the Senate, where it was thought likely to face an uphill battle to become law.
However, in the hours following Thursday's vote, former president and now senator Cristina Kirchner's center-left Front for Victory bloc removed a major obstacle to the bill by saying it would vote in favor.
The issue has divided Argentine society: while Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010, it remains strongly influenced by the Catholic Church and by the pope, who was formerly the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
"It's the time of women's rights," said Silvia Lospennato, a member of President Mauricio Macri's center-right Cambiemos (Let's Change) coalition.
Argentina's bishops lamented the result, saying: "As Argentines, this decision hurts us."
President Mauricio Macri, who made it clear from the outset that he was "in favor of life," described the debate as "historic" and said it showed "we have been able to resolve our differences with respect."
Lawmakers wrangled through more than 22 hours of emotionally charged debate. Nearly all 257 members spoke before the vote was taken, as activists on both sides of the divide kept vigil in the streets outside.
It was unclear up to the last minute if the measure would be approved or defeated. As many as 30 lawmakers were undecided before the debate began on Wednesday, and one lawmaker abstained from voting.
When the result was announced, legislators who voted in favor leapt to their feet and hugged their neighbors, while opponents slumped in their seats.
"A woman is not entitled to an abortion, she has the right to health. The unborn child is biologically and scientifically a human being," said Sebastian Bragagnolo, from the governing Cambiemos coalition who opposed the measure.
- Street celebrations -
In the streets outside the Congress abortion rights activists wildly cheered and danced, while many anti-abortion demonstrators hugged each other and wept.
"The mobilization has been decisive and what happens in the Senate will depend a lot on continuing to mobilize public support," Teresa Giani, 48, told AFP.
"I think it is very good that they are legislating for the problems of women," said Ines Rivas, 62. When women become lawmakers and enter Congress "they defend the rights of women," she said.
"Argentines are religious, and they will continue to be," said Micaela Gonzalez, a 21-year old university student. "Catholics have abortions, but with this law now they will be able to so safely."
As in most Latin American countries, abortion is illegal in Argentina, except in cases of rape or when the life or health of the woman is at risk.
The bill, if passed by the Senate, would decriminalize abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, and beyond that in cases where the infant would not survive after birth.
Many lawmakers had said they would put their religious convictions aside to support the measure.
The Catholic Church campaigned fiercely against the bill, and the pope sent a letter to Argentine bishops calling on them to "defend life and justice."
Argentina's Episcopal Conference said the Senate would now have "an opportunity to look for new and creative solutions so that no woman has to go for an abortion."
However, in the hours after the vote, both government and opposition blocs in the Senate predicted it would be approved.
Miguel Angel Pichetto, a Peronist opposition leader in the Senate, said the vote had created "an unstoppable effect, and I am confident the law will be approved."
"The Senate has to take into account citizens' demand and legislate for realities, abortion is not a question of faith but of public health," said the head of the Senate's ruling Cambrimos bloc, Luis Naidenoff.
Analyst Sol Prieto described the vote as "a setback" for the Church.
"Abortion has been decriminalized in Ireland, and now it's the turn of Argentina," he said.
"I would not be surprised if the Church focuses more on issues of poverty reduction and less on issues of morality."
Argentina overcame strong Church opposition to legalize gay marriage eight years ago, but the issue of abortion had never before been discussed in Congress.
According to official health ministry statistics, more than 17 percent of the 245 recorded deaths of pregnant women and girls in 2016 were due to abortion.