(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Buenos Aires - The Argentinian parliament on Wednesday began a historic debate on the legalization of abortion in the country where illegal terminations are an important cause of maternal deaths.

It took pro-choice activists eight attempts to bring the matter to parliament.

Argentina currently allows a pregnancy to be ended only in cases of rape or risk to the mother's life.

The proposed legislation would allow abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The law would also allow doctors to refuse to perform abortions if they so wish. Girls aged between 13 and 16 years would need permission from an adult to abort.

The Chamber of Deputies was expected to vote on the proposed legislation on Thursday, according to media reports.

If the majority of deputies support the bill, it would still have to be approved by the Senate.

The vote was expected to be tight as the debate on abortion has deeply divided Argentinian society.

The Catholic Church opposes the initiative, with Cardinal Mario Poli saying that "the foremost duty of a state is to protect the life of its inhabitants."

But Mario Negri, the head of President Mauricio Macri's parliamentary group, said that the criminalization of abortion had "failed."

He called on the state to "give answers to this drama which challenges us as a society."

Both pro-choice and pro-life groups demonstrated outside parliament on Wednesday.

Argentina recorded 245 cases of maternal mortality in 2016, according to official figures quoted by the website Infobae. Of these, 43 were due to abortions or miscarriages.