Argentina’s president-elect, Alberto Fernández, has promised he will move to legalise abortion after taking office on 10 December.

He will send a bill to congress which, if approved, would make Argentina the first major Latin American nation with legalised abortion. The ruling in the 45 million-strong country would follow decisions by its much smaller neighbour Uruguay, which legalised the practice in 2012, and Cuba, in 1965.

“I am an activist for putting an end to the criminalisation of abortion,” Fernández said in an interview with the daily Página/12. “There’s going to be a bill of law sent by the president.”

The announcement would represent a major U-turn for official policy in Argentina, which has steadfastly opposed legalisation. A bill presented by women’s rights activists was rejected by the Senate by 38 votes to 31 last year, after the president at the time, Mauricio Macri, refused to endorse it.

Fernández’s pledge was welcomed by equality campaigners in Argentina, where the struggle to end discrimination and violence against women has sparked a mass movement including a large number of women’s marches.

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“I still can’t believe it’s happening,” said Ana Correa, a member of the #NiUnaMenos (“Not one less”, meaning not one more woman lost to male violence) collective, in a country where every 30 hours another woman becomes the victim of “femicide”, an Argentinian legal term encompassing domestic violence, “honour” killings and other categories of hate crimes against women.

“The women’s movement is one of the most important political occurrences of the last four years,” Correa said, “and I think this time, with the backing of the new president, a legal abortion law will be finally enacted.”

Pope Francis, who remains involved in the politics of his home country, has made no secret of his opposition to legal abortion and reportedly asked anti-abortion legislators to pressure fellow lawmakers to reject last year’s bill.

Argentina would also stand out as the first predominantly Catholic nation in the region – 92% of the population declared themselves Catholic in the last 2011 census – to legalise abortion. In Uruguay, 41% of the population is Catholic and in Cuba, it is 60%. Abortion is also legal in South America’s English-speaking Guyana.

“I would like that the debate is not one between progressives and conservatives, revolutionaries and traditionalists. It’s a problem of public health that we should resolve,” said Fernández.

Asked in an interview with the local Pagina 12 daily if Argentina could expect to see the proposed legislation’s arrival in Congress before the end of the year. Fernández said he intends to do it ‘as soon as possible,’ pointing out timing doesn’t depend only on him. Though he did say he is an “advocate for putting an end to the criminalisation of abortion.”

“We should respect the woman who feels she has the right to make decisions, like abortion, about her own body as much as we do the woman who feels God doesn’t permit her to have an abortion,” he said, adding that decriminalising and legalising abortion doesn’t make it obligatory for every woman.

Fernández insists that those who “have the conviction that God doesn’t allow it” won’t seek nor will they be required to seek abortions. “We respect them. And we respect the others.”

“It’s time to stop with this standard-bearer of the blue scarf versus the green scarf,” he added.

Alberto Fernández was elected president of Argentina, after he defeated the centre-right incumbent, Mauricio Macri in the Presidential election in October 2019.

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