ROSARIO, Argentina – On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Argentinians cut short their post-lunch family time, which generally comes after the traditional love affair with grilled meats known here as the asado, to rally across the country in favor of life.

Under the heading of “save them both,” meaning mother and child, people of all walks of life in over 200 cities protested against a proposed measure to legalize abortion.

The largest event took place in Buenos Aires, with over 50,000 people joining, but some cities saw 20,000 people or more participating in the “Great Rally for Life.”

In many places, free ultrasounds were offered for pregnant women, and donations were collected to distribute through NGOs that work with expectant mothers in need.

Catholic bishops joined the rallies, both live and through social media, yet the events weren’t organized by the Catholic Church but by various organizations, both national and local, some confessional and others civil, which aim to defend life from the moment of conception until natural death.

The events took place on March 25, National Day of the Unborn Child, marked yearly nine months before Christmas – on the Feast of the Annunciation, meaning the moment when tradition holds that Mary conceived the Christ child – as they have done since 1998.

Though various cities have had pro-life initiatives ever since, they took on a special sense of urgency this year after President Mauricio Macri greenlighted an abortion debate in the national senate, the first time an abortion measure has reached that stage.

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Macri has already said that if Congress were to pass the bill, which seems far-fetched today because it lacks sufficient support, he wouldn’t veto it.

According to Dr. Rafael Pineda, a gynecologist and former member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, Macri made a mistake by saying he wouldn’t issue a veto: “It was a public failure for him to say that. He enraged many of those who voted for him, who will remember that in the national elections of 2019.”

“Hypocrisy continues in Argentine politics,” Pineda said, noting that the legalization of abortion was not part of Macri’s campaign promises. Furthermore, the president repeatedly has said he’s personally against it.

Pineda was one of the 20,000 who rallied in Rosario, some 150 miles from Buenos Aires, and Argentina’s second city.

“I couldn’t not be here, after spending more than 50 years of my life defending life,” he said. As a medical doctor, he believes that if abortion is legalized in Argentina, “there wouldn’t be many doctors willing to participate in abortions.”

Though allowed when the life of the mother is at risk or if the pregnancy is the result of an abuse, abortion is forbidden by Argentina’s constitution, which considers life to begin at the moment of conception.

Ahead of the date for the rallies, the Argentine bishops’ conference (CEA) launched a campaign urging laity to take to the public square and play an active role in the national debate.

Over 70 bishops also shared pictures of themselves on social media, holding a sign in Spanish with a hashtag saying “every life counts” (#ValeTodaVida), and encouraged the parishes to write this phrase in the olive branches distributed in every Mass this Palm Sunday.

On Twitter, some of those participating in the pro-life rally complained that local media either ignored the event or described it as a “group of people,” several reducing them to faith-based groups.

“This is the beginning of a path that has to find every Argentine together to defend the life of the women and of unborn children,” said Ana Belen Marmora, of Unidad Provida, in Argentina’s capital.

“Today, in every rally that is taking place across the country, we’re uniting to tell our representatives who are going to debate this issue in Congress that abortion doesn’t resolve anything, that it’s a social failure and a setback in matters of rights,” she said.

The theme of protection of both lives, that of the mother and the unborn child, was present in many of the gatherings, and also in press releases sent ahead of Sunday.

The Alliance of Evangelical Churches of Argentina (ACIERA), which claims to represent 15,000 Evangelical congregations in the country, promoted participation in the mobilization, saying that the state has to be “on the side of both lives.”

In a statement released ahead of Sunday, the Evangelicals stated that they’re against abortion and any proposed bills legalizing it, because “no one can decide who has the right to live and who doesn’t.”

The rally in Buenos Aires, as seen from a drone:

In Rosario, a letter was read to the crowd, written for the occasion by a woman who, 27 years ago, when she was 17, had an abortion. Asking to remain anonymous because the two children she’s had since then “don’t know they have an older brother,” she said that even after almost three decades, she still doesn’t have the strength to share that with them.

“I could feel my baby’s voice asking me not to do it, that he wanted to live,” the woman wrote. “When I woke up after the procedure, there was nothing but a deafening silence. I was never the same after that. Since then, I’ve had a lump in my throat and sadness in my soul. There’s no bigger pain.”

Paula Amada, one of the organizers of the rally, urged participants to continue witnessing life beyond the gathering, which began at the downtown square where both City Hall and the Cathedral are located.

Ironically, on March 8, International Women’s Day, fountains and the walls of neighboring buildings became canvases for pro-abortion mottos such “Free, legal and safe abortion,” together with feminist phrases common in Argentina’s women’s rallies, such as “Death to the macho,” “no baby is born straight,” and “don’t oppress me,” most written in green, the color that identifies the national pro-abortion campaign.

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Discrimination against children with disabilities

As it’s currently framed, the proposed bill would legalize abortion until week 14 of a pregnancy, and after that, up until the ninth month in three situations: when the pregnancy is product of rape (abortion under those circumstances is already legal in Argentina); when the life of the mother is at risk either physically (which is already decriminalized) or psychologically; and in cases of genetic malformation of the child.

Pro-lifers leading the campaign against the bill say experience shows such legislation, partnered with increasingly accurate pre-natal diagnoses, leads to the systematic elimination of almost 90 percent of children with certain forms of disability, such as Down syndrome.

“The project speaks about abortion after 14 weeks for malformations, and it doesn’t define which ones,” said Dr. Eduardo Moreno Vivot, a pediatric doctor from Buenos Aires who specializes in children with Down syndrome. “The term would imply a genetic condition, such as Down syndrome, or physical malformation.”

“The fact that this is included is discrimination, and we see it in other countries,” he told Crux.

According to the expert, who’s a member of the scientific committee of the Ibero-American Federation of Down syndrome, discrimination based on genetic, chromosomal or physical alteration is wrong, and practicing an abortion to terminate their lives is “to do what Hitler did with people with intellectual disabilities.”

Moreno Vivot went to the rally with his family because “I believe and am convinced that life begins in the moment of conception when, through that union a new DNA is created and the process that will mold that new being have already begun.”

The information in that cell, the doctor said, is already there.

“My position is not biological, it’s human,” he said. “I believe that man is a bio psycho social model. But as a Catholic, I defend life because it was given by God, because I have no authority to put an end to it. As a doctor, I must be next to the people, accompanying them and when possible, providing a cure.”

Jorge Nicolás Lafferriere, the director of the Bio-ethic, Person and Family Center of Argentina’s Pontifical University, warns against what he said is a legal burden which the legalization of late-term abortion for children with malformation will add to many, from doctors to the parents.

Writing in Argentina’s La Nacion, the legal expert said that doctors will be forced to indicate the genetic study to avoid a malpractice lawsuit, and private healthcare insurers will be allowed to deny coverage or charge more to those who “did nothing to avoid the birth of children with disabilities.”