After a vote in its legislature giving a woman the right, under certain conditions to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, Uruguay is set to legalize abortion.
The bill was approved in Uruguay's chamber of deputies late Tuesday after 14 hours of intense debate.
It passed by the narrowest of margins -- 50 votes for, 49 against -- as scores of protesters for and against the measure demonstrated outside the building.
The bill must still be approved by the Senate, where it is expected to pass handily. A vote was expected before the end of the year, possibly as soon as next month.
Once approved, Uruguay would become only the second Latin American country to legalize abortion, after Cuba in 1965. English-speaking Guyana approved it in 1995.
An even more liberal abortion bill was adopted by the Uruguayan Senate late last year, but lawmakers in the lower house rejected that measure.
The legislation approved on Tuesday, which would legalize abortions in the first 12 weeks, drew criticism from some supporters of choice who say it does not go far enough.
It also was criticized, however, by abortion opponents who insist that all life is sacred -- including a fetus in its first trimester of pregnancy.
The governing, left-of-center Frente Amplio (FA) party, which spearheaded both votes on legalizing abortion, said their aim was to make the practice available for women who say the want reproductive choice -- but not too accessible.
"It is not the bill we wanted, but it is the product of an agreement" between opposing lawmakers in Congress, said Susana Pereyra, a legislator with the FA.
The bill "does not so much legalize abortion as decriminalize it," Pereyra said.
Another supporter of the measure, independent lawmaker Ivan Posada, an author of the legislation whose vote provided the critical margin of victory, said "this bill opts for a middle path, the path of lesser of bad options."
The bill, inspired by similar legislation in place in some European countries, would allow a first trimester abortion only after a woman has consulted a team of three medical professionals on the potential risks of terminating a pregnancy.
They also are required to advise the woman about alternatives to ending the pregnancy, including adoption and social welfare programs that could help her to care for a newborn infant.
At present, abortion here is punishable by nine months in prison for the woman and up to two years for the doctor performing the abortion.
The bill that would change that is, to some degree, disliked by both sides, however. One abortion rights backer, pro-choice advocate Ana Lima, said she was disappointed that the bill does not acknowledge that women have the right to determine their own reproductive fate, but only "suspends" the punishment if women terminate a pregnancy
Anti-abortion activists, meanwhile, decried the legislation, which they said will legalize the killing of unborn life.
"I'm against it. I believe life begins at conception," said German Macarena, a 25-year old student who watched the floor debate on the bill in the Congress.
"I wanted to be there to express the opposition of people who think like me," he said.
In 2008, Uruguay's legislature approved a bill legalizing abortion, but Tabare Vazquez, the country's first leftist president and a Frente Amplio leader, vetoed the measure, citing "ethical principles."
The current president, Jose Mujica, who is also from the Frente Amplio, already has said he would sign this latest abortion bill into law once it is approved in the Senate.
There are no statistics on illegal abortions in Uruguay, a small country of 3.3 million inhabitants, but non-governmental groups estimate their number to be around 30,000 per year.