ROSARIO, Argentina – For the second time in three years, Pope Francis’s native Argentina is debating decriminalization of abortion, which the government wants to make “legal, free and safe” in every health center in the country during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, while hospitals are still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a fight pro-lifers in Argentina knew would come. President Alberto Fernandez had promised to present the bill back in March, but had to postpone after the coronavirus crisis compelled him to ask the nation he leads to stay home because “the economy can rise up again, but a life that is lost, cannot.”

Back in 2018, when then-President Mauricio Macri allowed abortion to be debated in Congress for the first time in 12 years, many in the pro-abortion camp blamed the Catholic Church and the Argentine bishops of meddling. On that occasion, the hierarchy released a handful of statements but many lay people protested what they perceived as the “silence” of the bishops.

This time around, however, the bishops appear determined to be more proactive.

A source close to the bishops told Crux that the Church’s intention is to “primerear” the debate. He specifically chose this verb, that doesn’t technically exist in Spanish, but which was often used by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and on other occasions.

Officially translated into English as “taking the first step,” the verb means not only to take the first step, but to do so ahead of something or someone else. In the exhortation, Francis was calling on Catholics to be missionaries, to get out from their comfort zones and be evangelizers by looking for those on the outskirts.

In the case of Argentina and abortion, the bishops chose to “primerear” Fernandez by speaking up before the president officially introduced the abortion bill. They released a statement on Oct. 22, highlighting the contradiction of making abortion widely available in Argentina as the government continues to ask people to stay home to save their lives.

In that statement, the prelates had blasted Fernandez’ plans to decriminalizing abortion as “untenable and inappropriate,” both from an ethical perspective and under the present circumstances.

To try to prevent criticism from abortion foes, the government also presented a bill to give financial aid to mothers during the first 1,000 days of the child’s life, a countdown that begins during the pregnancy. Broadly speaking, the maneuver seems to have backfired. It caused uproar from pro-abortion groups, who see it as a possible way to manipulate women who might want an abortion into having the baby; pro-life groups, meanwhile, consider it ironic: “If a mother wants the child, then it’s a baby … if not, what is it?” a pro-life NGO tweeted this week.

The president sent the bill to Congress Nov. 17. In a video he said “it was always my commitment that the state accompany all gestating people in their maternity projects and take care of the life and health of those who decide to interrupt their pregnancy. The state must not ignore any of these realities.”

The president also argued that abortion “happens” in Argentina but in “illegality,” increasing the number of women who die yearly due to voluntary pregnancy terminations.

Hundreds of experts were heard by Congress, but only two were clerics: Bishop Gustavo Carrara, auxiliary of Buenos Aires, and Father Jose Maria di Paola, both of them members of the group of “slum priests,” who live and minister in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires.

RELATED: Argentina ‘slum priest’ blames abortion push on IMF

A pro-life umbrella organization that brings together Catholics, Evangelicals and atheist is organizing a nation-wide rally for Nov. 28. There too, the bishops’ conference hopes lay people will take the initiative. But in the meantime, they will continue to speak up through statements, in interviews, penning op-eds and in social media.

And the more Fernandez presses on muddling the Church, the more the bishops will respond, a source said. Several observers have acknowledged in recent weeks that Fernandez press to once again debate abortion is a distraction from the growing unemployment and the fact that over 60 percent of the country’s children live under the poverty line.

On Thursday, talking to a radio station about the Church’s opposition to the bill, Fernandez said, “I’m Catholic, but I need to resolve a problem of public health.”

Without further prompting, he also said that in the history of the Church there have been different “views” on the matter, and claimed that “either St. Thomas or St. Augustine said that there were two types of abortion, one that deserved punishment and one that doesn’t. And they saw abortions between 90 and 120 days as non-punitive abortions.”

St. Augustine, who died in 430 AD, distinguished between a fetus before or after “ensoulment,” with the science available believed happened at the end of the first trimester, when most pregnant women begin to feel the baby move. Yet he defined abortion as a grave evil, even if he could not, in a strict moral sense, consider it a murder, because the science of the day, based on Aristotelian biology, didn’t.

Aquinas had a similar thought, speaking of “lustful cruelty,” “extravagant methods” to avoid pregnancies or if, unsuccessful, “destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality; or if it was advancing to life within the womb, should be slain before it was born.”

According to Fernandez, “the Church always valued the existence of the soul before the body, and back then sustained that there was a moment when the mother adverted the entrance of the soul in the fetus, between days 90 and 120, because she felt movement in her womb, the famous little kicks.”

“I said this much to [Cardinal Pietro Parolin], the [Vatican’s] Secretary of State when I visited the pope in February, and he changed topics,” Fernandez said, before concluding by saying: “The only thing this shows is that it’s a dilemma of yesteryear of a great branch of the Church.”

The list of bishops and priests who’ve spoken up in one way or another about the bill is long, as the list of lay people, organizations such as Catholic Universities and conglomerates of lawyers and doctors who’ve rejected the bill is long and its content repetitive.

Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez of La Plata, often considered one of Pope Francis’ ghostwriters and a close ally withing the Argentine bishops conference, summarized the arguments by saying that human rights will never fully be defended if they’re denied to the children yet to be born.

“Human rights will never be fully defended if we deny them to the children to be born,” he said during a Te Deum celebration for the 138th anniversary of the founding of the city of La Plata.

In his homily, Fernandez recalled that Pope Francis “proposes the universal openness of love, which is not so much the relationship with other countries, but the attitude of opening up to everyone, including the different, the least, the forgotten, the abandoned.”

Yet this papal proposal “is not understood if the immense dignity of each human person is not recognized, the inviolable dignity of every human person regardless of any circumstance,” he said. “The dignity of a human being does not disappear if a person becomes ill, if they become weak, if they grow old, if they’re poor, if they’re is disabled or even if they have committed a crime.”

He then said that “among those discarded from a society that discriminates, excludes and forgets are unborn children.”

“The fact that they have not yet fully developed does not take away any of their human dignity. For this reason, human rights will never be fully defended if we deny them to unborn children,” the archbishop said.

President Fernandez and the pro-abortion campaign argue that it would be a solution for women who live in poverty and cannot afford to have an abortion at a private clinic. However, a group of mothers from Buenos Aires slums wrote a letter to Francis, asking for him to help their voices be heard.

A group of mothers from the slums, who in 2018 formed a “network of networks” in the popular neighborhoods to defend life, wrote to Pope Francis before a new debate over abortion and the attempt by some sector to generalize that this practice it is an option for poor women.

In the letter to the pontiff, they highlighted that they represent a network of “women who work side by side to take care of the lives of many neighbors: the baby who is in gestation and his mother as well as the one who was born is among us and needs help.”

“This week, hearing the President of the Nation present his own bill that seeks to legalize abortion, a cold terror invaded us just to think that this project is aimed at the teenagers of our neighborhoods. Not so much because the slum culture thinks of abortion as a solution to unexpected pregnancy (His Holiness knows well our way of assuming motherhood among aunts, grandmothers and neighbors), but because it is aimed at cultivating the idea that abortion is one more possibility within the range of contraceptive methods and that even the main users [of abortion] must be poor women,” they said.

“We have been living this new stereotype every day since 2018 in the medical assistance centers installed in our neighborhoods,” they wrote, nothing that when they go to a doctor in a state-owned clinic, they hear things such as: “How are you going to raise another child? In your situation it’s irresponsible to bring another child into the world’ or ‘abortion is a right, no one can force you to be a mother.”

“We think with horror that if this happens in the small clinics and in the hospitals of Buenos Aires without an abortion law, what will happen with the proposed bill, that assures girls from the age of 13 unrestricted access to this horrendous practice?,” the women wrote.

“Our voice, like that of unborn children, is never heard. They classified us as a ‘factory of the poor’; ‘workers of the State’. Our reality as women who overcome life’s challenges with our children, is overshadowed, ” by women who claim to “represent us without us giving our consent, stifling our true positions on the right to life. They do not want to listen to us, neither the legislators nor the journalists. If we did not have the slum priests who raise their voices for us, we would be even more alone,” they acknowledged.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma