Argentina's Fernandez sends delayed abortion bill to Congress

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Argentine President Alberto Fernandez sent a bill to Congress on Tuesday that would legalize abortion, a significant step in the conservative South American nation where the procedure is currently considered a crime in most cases.

The bill would legalize the “voluntary interruption” of pregnancy and guarantee that the country’s health care system implements access to the procedure, Fernandez said in a video message shared on his Twitter account.

Abortion is a crime in predominantly Roman Catholic Argentina except in cases of rape or risk to the woman’s life or health. However, even women who meet those requirements often meet obstacles, particularly in conservative or rural areas, activists said.

Outside the exceptions, women who have an abortion and anyone who performs them illegally could go to prison.

“The debate is not saying yes or no to abortion,” Fernandez said. “The dilemma that we must overcome is whether abortions are performed clandestinely or in the Argentine health system.”

Argentina came close to legalizing abortion in 2018 when the lower house approved a bill to allow the procedure in pregnancies of up to 14 weeks, only for the senate to narrowly reject it after a campaign by the Catholic Church.

Fernandez, who took over from his conservative predecessor Mauricio Macri last year, said in October that he was planning to send the bill to Congress after his pledge to do so in March was marred by the arrival of the coronavirus, leading to one of the strictest lockdowns in the world.

Human rights organization Amnesty International praised Fernandez for “keeping his word” and called on lawmakers to approve it.

“Congress must rise to the occasion and not miss the opportunity to recognize the rights of women, girls and others who can become pregnant to make free decisions about their bodies,” Mariela Belski, executive director of Amnesty International Argentina, said in a statement. (Reporting by Cassandra Garrison Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)