MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Mexico City lawmakers voted to legalize abortion during the first three months of pregnancy, a landmark decision likely to heighten church-state tensions in the Roman Catholic nation and lead to a bitter court battle.
Abortion-rights advocates said they hoped the vote would be the start of a new trend across Mexico and other parts of Latin America, where only Cuba and Guyana permit women to have abortions on demand in the first trimester. Most other Latin American countries allow it only in cases of rape or when the woman's life is at risk. Nicaragua, El Salvador and Chile ban it completely.
But the debate in Mexico appeared far from over. Opponents vowed to challenge the law before the Supreme Court, saying it violates individual rights.
``This is a step backward for democracy,'' said Armando Martinez, the leader of a Catholic lawyers' group that has petitioned the leftist-dominated legislature for a referendum on the issue. The church has played a vocal role in opposing the measure, a position shared by President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party. Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera led a protest march through the capital last month, pushing the limits of Mexico's constitutional ban on political activity by religious groups.
The Archdiocese said Tuesday that it would ``evaluate the moral consequences of the reforms'' and Rivera would have no public comment until Sunday.
The bill, approved 46-19, with one abstention, will take effect with the expected signing by the city's leftist mayor. The new law will require city hospitals to provide the procedure in the first trimester and opens the way for private abortion clinics. Girls under 18 would have to get their parents' consent.
The procedure will be almost free for poor or uninsured city residents. Mexico City is a federal district similar to Washington, D.C., with its own legislature. The district includes the capital and its suburbs and is home to about 20 million people.
Opponents fear the local law could attract women across Mexico seeking abortions. Nationally, Mexico allows abortion only in cases of rape, severe birth defects or if the woman's life is at risk. Doctors sometimes refuse to perform the procedure even under those circumstances.
However the law is unlikely to attract patients from the United States, where later-term abortion is legal in many states. Under the Mexico City law, women having an abortion after 12 weeks face punishment of three to six months in jail. Those performing abortions after that period would face one to three years in jail.
A crowd of abortion-rights supporters chanting ``Yes, we did it!'' gathered at a monument to 19th-century anti-clerical reformer Benito Juarez in downtown Mexico City after the vote.
``I feel happy, because this is a step forward, not backward, for a woman's right and freedom to choose ... about her body and her life,'' said demonstrator Gabriela Cruz, 36.
Proponents of the law say it would save lives.
Botched abortions using herbal remedies, black-market medications and quasi-medical procedures kill about 1,500 women in Mexico each year and are the third-leading cause of death for pregnant women in the capital, said Martha Micher, director of Mexico City's Women's Institute.
``Decriminalizing abortion is a historic triumph, a triumph of the left,'' said city legislator Jorge Diaz Cuervo, a leftist social democrat who voted for the bill. ``Today, there is a new atmosphere in this city. It is the atmosphere of freedom.''
Recent newspaper polls showed that a majority of Mexico City residents support legalized abortions, at least in the first weeks of pregnancy. That is at odds with the Catholic faith, which rejects abortion in the belief that life begins at conception.
``This is an act of revenge against the Catholic church,'' said anti-abortion businessman Carlos Valadez, 40.
The vote alarmed Calderon's party and prompted authorities to send riot police to separate chanting throngs of opposing demonstrators outside the city legislature.
Many of the abortion-rights demonstrations had a distinctly anti-church tone. One demonstrator pranced around in a mock bishop's costume, and some activists peppered their chants and banners with references to church sex abuse scandals.
In the 1920s, Catholics led an uprising against the government for repressing the religion. While church-state relations have improved since then, resentments remain. Leftists interrupted Masses and held protests in Mexico City's Metropolitan Cathedral after last summer's disputed presidential election, accusing prelates of taking sides.
Agustin Guerrero, a legislator who voted for the bill, said there may be no way to resolve such an emotional issue.
``This debate, as heated and important as it is, implies that we will have to live with disagreement over abortion, just as we live with disagreements over other issues,'' said Guerrero, a member of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party that dominates the Mexico City legislature.