ROSARIO, Argentina—Self-described as the “light blue majority” and backed by polls that show most Argentines oppose legalization of abortion pushed by the government, thousands of families rallied in 400 cities across Pope Francis’s native country Saturday to voice support for the life of the unborn child and that of the expectant mother.

The idea of a “legal, safe and free” abortion greatly divided Argentina in 2018, when it was first debated and rejected by Congress. Leftist President Alberto Fernandez promised to bring it back on the campaign trail last year, and it’s front and center in Argentine politics now.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the debate: Fernandez decided not to present it after he asked Argentines to lock themselves at home for over 200 days to combat spread of the disease, arguing the economy can rise up again but a life lost is forever.

Though the anti-abortion rallies were organized through social media, they had the support of both the Catholic bishops’ conference in Argentina and a union of Christian churches. Indirectly they had the pope’s backing too, since Francis last week answered a request from a network of mothers who live in the slums of Buenos Aires who’d asked him to “be our voice” in a debate in which pro-choice forces claim it’s women who live in poverty who want abortion and die having it in clandestine clinics.

On Saturday, the cathedral church of Merlo in Buenos Aires woke up sprayed with green painting and graffiti saying things such as, “Neither Fernandez nor Bergoglio: Legal Abortion.”

(“Bergoglio” is Pope Francis’s given last name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.)

Abortion is only legal in some states of Argentina in cases of rape or threats to the life of the mother. The bill presented by Fernandez would make it legal and free under all circumstances in public and private hospitals across the country for girls as young as 13 up until week 14 of pregnancy, and then up the ninth month if it was product of rape or endangers the “physical or mental” health of the mother.

Rallies opposed to the bill took place in every state capital but also in many other cities, always under the premise of social distance- with thousands joining from their cars adorned with the Argentine flag, balloons and light-blue handkerchiefs, the color of the pro-life camp, in opposition to the green one the pro-abortion supporters’ sport.

The platform “Unidad pro-vida,” an umbrella group that brings together 150 NGOs helped coordinate the information on times and places for each city.

Writing in Argentina’s daily of record, La Nacion, journalist Marino De Vedia argued that this year ecclesiastical structures, from the pope to the parishes, will focus their energies on rejecting a bill that is even more radical and negative, in their view, than the one rejected two years ago.

This might become problematic, the journalist who specializes in Church affairs argued, as the government took for granted the institution’s support not for legalizing abortion but for containing the social unrest likely to explode in Argentina at the end of a bad year.

It happened, for instance, back in 2001, when protests brought down a government.

Through soup kitchens, Caritas offices, a bishops-coordinated dialogue table and homilies from the many priests who live and minister in the slums of Buenos Aires, the left-wing government hoped to avoid a civil revolt this December. It’s expected to happen taking into account that after the world’s longest lockdown and some of the highest per-capita deaths due to COVID-19, between 50 to 60 percent of Argentines will greet the new year living under the poverty line.

“The bishops are conscious that the Government will aim to score a success with the ‘Legal Abortion’ operation, at the end of a year in which it practically did not achieve successes, conditioned by the pandemic, the deepening of the crisis and, as if that were not enough, the recent scandal of the incidents in the Casa Rosada itself during the funeral of Diego Maradona,” wrote De Vedia, referring to incidents in the government house during the funeral of the soccer star who passed away last week.

Many observers and commentators saw the fact that people temporarily took over the house of government as a sign of the simmering anger and discontent, and many are already warning the government that abortion is an ideological battle fought mostly by artist and middle-class Argentines, but it won’t help feed the poor.

Francis got involved in the debate not only through a hand-written letter to the women in the slums, which he sent through a national legislator from the opposition party, but also by calling the head of the opposition block-PRO- in the chamber of deputies, Cristian Ritondo, to express his support. This is another explicit blow by the head of the Catholic Church to a government that saw the pope as an ally.

Back in 2018, Francis was mostly in the margins, with no known attempts to interfere in the vote, and the bishops had a “let the laity act” attitude. Yet this time around, he decided to get involved. The reasons for this are plenty, including the fact that virtually every time he’s spoken about the legalization of abortion, Fernandez brought the pope to the debate, saying that he hoped Francis “won’t get angry at me” because “I’m Catholic but trying to resolve a matter of public health.”

The president even brought St. Agustin and St. Thomas to claim that, once upon a time, the Church didn’t see abortion as a murder.

Fernandez presented the bill last week, and Congress is hoping for an “express” debate, meaning to have it legalized before the end of the year.

Jorge Nicolas Lafferriere, a pro-life lawyer and faculty member of Argentina’s Pontifical University, underlined that this is the first time that it’s the president who presents a project to legalize abortion, and its “not easy in this country for Congress to reject a proposal when the Executive is so involved.”

On the need to have the debate now, Lafferriere said he supposes it’s due to the fact that next year there will be mid-term elections and in such years, abortion is generally avoided as it’s heavily divisive.

“It is very surprising that the issue is incorporated into [Congress’] extraordinary sessions, after such a difficult year, with so much poverty and care for life due to the pandemic,” he said on Saturday, after taking part in the rallies in Buenos Aires. “A distraction can’t be ruled out: having social platforms and the media discuss abortion while they reform the justice system.”

Lafferriere notes opinion in the capital and the rest of the country is very different, explaining why the Senate, which represents the “interior” rejected the abortion project in 2018 and could do so again. The numbers are not clear, explaining nationwide mobilizations on both sides: in the interior, there’s a clear “light blue” majority, and a poll released last week showed that there are more people in Argentina rejecting abortion today than in 2018.

Asked about a possible domino effect should the pope’s own country legalize abortion, Lafferrire said that “there’s no doubt Argentina is a point of reference in the region,” visible, for instance, by the light blue and green handkerchiefs that have spread like powder throughout Latin America.

“There is something ideological in wanting to legalize abortion in Pope Francis’ country, who reminds us of the need for a political system that looks for the common good and takes into consideration the dignity of each person, from the unborn life to the poorest among us or the elderly,” he said. “Regrettably, we see a radicalization of an ideology that tries to legitimize the throw-away culture.”

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