Argentine activists on Tuesday were launching a renewed effort to legalize elective abortions in the homeland of Pope Francis after narrowly falling short last year.

Lawmakers said they would introduce a bill to legalize abortion for pregnancies up to 14 weeks. A similar measure last year passed the lower house of Congress but was defeated in the Senate under heavy opposition by religious organizations.

The grassroots movement behind the legislation came closer than ever before to approval and activists promised to continue their efforts to expand women’s reproductive rights. Backers hope elections this year will bring in senators more favorable to their cause.

Women gather for demonstration outside the Congress in favor of legalizing abortion, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Activists are launching a renewed effort to legalize elective abortions in the homeland of Pope Francis after narrowly falling short last year. (AP Photo/Marcos Brindicci)
Women gather for demonstration outside the Congress in favor of legalizing abortion, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Activists are launching a renewed effort to legalize elective abortions in the homeland of Pope Francis after narrowly falling short last year. (AP Photo/Marcos Brindicci)

The bill was being introduced as demonstrations marking the International Day of Action for Women’s Health were being held in Argentina and other nations.

The Argentine movement has gathered international support, with Penelope Cruz and several other actors at the Cannes film festival holding up the green handkerchiefs that symbolize the abortion movement.

“After last year’s rejection, it’s evident that abortion continues to be practiced in terrible conditions and women continue to die…,” said Amnesty International Argentina director Mariela Belski.

A woman shouts in favor of legalizing abortion, during a demonstration outside the Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Activists are launching a renewed effort to legalize elective abortions in the homeland of Pope Francis after narrowly falling short last year. (AP Photo/Marcos Brindicci)
A woman shouts in favor of legalizing abortion, during a demonstration outside the Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Activists are launching a renewed effort to legalize elective abortions in the homeland of Pope Francis after narrowly falling short last year. (AP Photo/Marcos Brindicci)

“The state must settle its debt and provide abortion services without improper restrictions, discrimination and punishment.”

Argentina now allows abortion only in cases of rape or a risk to a woman’s health. But Argentine women continue to undergo illegal abortions and thousands of women, mostly poor, are hospitalized each year for complications. The health minister estimates that more than 350,000 clandestine abortions are carried out each year, while human rights groups estimate the number to be as high as a half million.

The new bill protects women who carry out their own abortions from any sanctions. The new bill differs from last year’s with a new section focused on sexual education and counseling for women. It also sets prison terms of between three months and one year to health establishments or doctors who “unjustifiably delay,” block or refuse to carry out an elective abortion within the terms of the law, and longer prison terms if that action leads to damage to a woman’s health or causes her death.

“Being a mother should be a choice, not an obligation,” said Jenny Duran, a member of the national campaign for the right to a safe, legal and free abortion. “The current law in Argentina undermines our health, our wellbeing and our freedom. We call on lawmakers to do the right thing – listen to women’s voices and respect our right to make our own decisions about our bodies.”

Ruling party lawmaker Daniel Lipovetzky said “it won’t be so easy” to debate a proposal that divides people so much during an election year. “But this is an issue that needs to be debated by society,” he said.

Last year, conservative President Mauricio Macri had promised to sign the legislation if it passed Congress even though he opposes abortion. After it was rejected in the Senate, Macri said that the debate would continue.

Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010. More recently, the Ni Una Menos, or Not One Less, movement created in Argentina to fight violence against women has spread worldwide.

Efforts to ease or tighten abortion restrictions have repeatedly emerged across Latin America and the Caribbean in recent years as socially conservative countries grapple with shifting views on once-taboo issues and the church continues to lose influence to secularism and a crisis of confidence after an avalanche of clerical sex abuse scandals.

Pope Francis last year denounced abortion as the “white glove” equivalent of Nazi-era eugenics programs and urged families “to accept the children that God gives them.”

The pope recently said that abortion can never be condoned, even when the fetus is seriously ill or likely to die. He also urged doctors and priests to support families to carry such pregnancies to term. “Is it licit to throw away a life to resolve a problem?” the pontiff asked. “Is it licit to hire a hit man to resolve a problem?”

His comments came as the abortion debate is rousing renewed debate in the U.S. with state initiatives seeking to restrict the procedure.

In 2017, Chile became the last country in South America to drop a ban on abortions in all cases, though some countries in Central America still prohibit abortions without exceptions.

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Associated Press journalists Almudena Calatrava, Debora Rey, Paul Byrne and Leo Lavalle contributed to this report.