Global human rights and women's groups were following the vote, and figures such as United States actress Susan Sarandon and Canadian author Atwood supported the pro-abortion cause in Argentina.
After a 15-hour debate, 31 senators voted in favour and 38 voted against a bill legalising abortion in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.
"All that this decision does is perpetuate the circle of violence which women, girls and others who can become pregnant are forced into".
Celia Szusterman, trustee of the United Kingdom board of Pro-Mujer and director of the Latin America program at the Institute for Statecraft, told CNN that the result was "a step backward for women's rights and women's health".
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Efforts to ease or tighten abortion restrictions have repeatedly emerged across Latin America in recent years as socially conservative countries grapple with shifting views on once-taboo issues.
Argentina is a majority-Catholic country and the birthplace of Pope Francis.
"Sooner or later, this will be law", Edurne Cárdenas of Argentina's Center for Legal and Social Studies told the New York Times.
"I'm still optimistic. It didn't pass today, but it will pass tomorrow, it will pass the next day", said abortion rights supporter Natalia Carol, 23.
The Catholic Church and other groups opposed it, saying it violated Argentine law, which guarantees life from the moment of conception. The pontiff also issued a letter in March, as the abortion debate began, urging Argentines to "make a contribution in defense of life and justice". But, hey, who's to say she wouldn't've been a supporter of reproductive rights? Women who get abortions illegally can face up to four years in prison, while the doctors who provide them can be incarcerated for up to six years.
The Canadian novelist herself has repeatedly waded into Argentina's abortion debate in support of the bill.
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The move was also condemned by Amnesty International, which said Argentina had squandered an historic opportunity.
Tensions ran high during the legislative debate - which lasted well into the morning - with some members of the lower chamber being barred from the Argentine Senate and the vice president hurling insults at a senator.
Activists have estimated that since 1983, at more than 3,000 women in the country have died of illegal abortions.
On one side plaza stood 24-year-old Veronica Del Vasto, dressed in green, the color representing the pro-abortion movement.
Argentina is not going back to this, it is important for the women, especially for the young women.
Women's rights advocates, however, hope that a more liberal judiciary in Brazil will at least decriminalize abortion to help avoid deaths from botched terminations in a country where hundreds of thousands of women resort to clandestine clinics each year.
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