BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Rape victims have a right to abortion under Argentine law, but the nation's Supreme Court was forced to intervene this week to ensure that a woman who says she was kidnapped, forced into prostitution and raped could end her pregnancy.
The case has divided the public and sparked lawsuits in Buenos Aires, one of Latin America's most socially liberal cities where the mayor and opposition lawmakers are fighting over what limits if any should be placed on the procedure.
Abortion is banned in much of Latin America, home to about half the world's Roman Catholics. Argentina is among the countries that allow abortions in cases of rape or when a woman's health is in danger.
The recent controversy began when Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri announced that the city's first legal abortion under a new regulation governing the procedure in rape cases would be carried out on Tuesday.
But a civil court judge blocked the abortion at the last minute at the request of a private group.
Anti-abortion activists identified the woman and protested outside her home last week and then again at the hospital where she was to have the abortion. The woman's lawyer, Pablo Vicente, said the hospital chaplain was among the protesters.
"This woman was the victim of human trafficking, she has been raped and she doesn't want to continue with her pregnancy, which is now in the ninth week of gestation," Vicente said. "She had to endure a protest at her home and her family didn't know the whole story of what had happened to her, so she has unnecessarily had to relive humiliations of all kinds."
In an urgent ruling on Thursday the Supreme Court overturned the lower court's decision and said the abortion could proceed.
The woman, whose name has not been made public, could terminate her pregnancy as early as Friday. Rights group Amnesty International said the delays amounted to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."
In March, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was legal for all rape victims and said a sworn affidavit by the women or their legal representatives would be sufficient to show the pregnancy resulted from rape.
Since then, provincial governments and the city of Buenos Aires have drafted regulations to implement the ruling. Last month, Macri's government issued a protocol allowing abortions during the first 12 weeks of a rape victim's pregnancy.
Opponents, some of whom favor broadly legalizing abortion, responded by narrowly passing a bill in the city's legislature to scrap that time limit and allow girls 14 and older to abort without parental consent, arguing that most rape-related pregnancies occurred when girls were molested by relatives.
Macri, a centre-right politician whose party is generally opposed to abortion, has vowed to veto the bill, leaving the new protocol in place. Other provinces have set other conditions for rape victims to get access to legal abortions, prompting calls by feminist activists to enforce the same guidelines nationwide.
"Depending on where a woman lives, she either has this right or she doesn't, which is something we can't permit," said Mabel Bianco, head of the Foundation for Women's Study and Research (FEIM), a non-profit group that advocates gender equality and women's rights.
Pedro Andereggen, a lawyer for the Association for the Promotion and Defense of the Family, which led the legal campaign against this week's abortion, said his group was fighting for unborn children's rights and hoped courts throughout Argentina would ignore the Supreme Court ruling.
"The mother doesn't have the right to kill her child, even when she's been the victim of rape. The right to life of an innocent human being is absolute and allows no exceptions whatsoever," Andereggen said.
In Latin America, 95 percent of abortions are unsafe, according to a study co-sponsored by the World Health Organization. Only Cuba and Guyana permit abortions in the case of normal pregnancies.
In Argentina, roughly 500,000 abortions and miscarriages take place each year, FEIM estimates. Many wealthier Argentine women get abortions in private clinics under the pretense of having their appendix removed.
"Poor women go to the hospital, they can't get an abortion there and so they do it in an unsafe way and either end up very sick or dead. This is the great hypocrisy and great social injustice of abortion," Bianco said.
Debate on legalizing abortion has made little headway in Argentina due in part to President Cristina Fernandez's opposition. Catholic leaders condemn abortion under any circumstances and many people share their beliefs.
"Today I can say I'm not openly in favor of abortion," said Maria Elena Leuzzi, a Catholic who founded a non-profit group to help rape victims after her daughter was raped and savagely beaten in 2001. Her daughter did not become pregnant.
"But if you had asked me in 2001, I'm not going to be a hypocrite ... I may have wanted my daughter to abort. Because what was I going to do with my daughter raped, traumatized, unhinged, with several suicide attempts, not knowing where that baby came from or what it could bring to the world genetically. It's difficult."
Editing by Paul Simao