By Felipe Llambias
MONTEVIDEO, Dec 27 (Reuters) - Uruguay's Senate passed a bill to decriminalize abortion on Tuesday, a move that underscores the nation's liberal stance on ethical issues in the mainly conservative Roman Catholic region.
The bill, which is expected to pass in the lower house after lawmakers return from recess in February, would let women have abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
It was approved in the Senate 17-14 after 10 hours of heated debate.
"We don't have the right to pass moral judgement by saying that the woman who continues her pregnancy and has her baby is in the right whereas the one who doesn't, for whatever reason, is in the wrong," said Senator Monica Xavier, a member of the ruling leftist coalition of President Jose Mujica.
"We're not moral censors, we're congressmen," she added.
Mujica's allies control the Senate and the lower house and he has indicated he would sign the law if it passes both chambers.
Three years ago Mujica's predecessor, Tabare Vazquez, vetoed a similar abortion measure on the grounds that it violated the right to life, and the issue remains highly charged.
"This bill discriminates against men," said Senator Alfredo Solari from the opposition Colorado Party. "How can the law leave the decision to end a pregnancy with the woman alone? What about the man?"
Abortion was banned in Uruguay in 1938 and the current law only allows courts to waive or reduce penalties in a few cases including rape and when the women's health is at serious risk.
Government policies on abortion and other divisive matters such as gay rights tend to reflect the church's conservative stance in Latin America - home to about half of the world's Catholics.
Communist Cuba has the region's most permissive laws on abortion. Mexico City allows abortion in the first 12 weeks.
Uruguay was the first Latin American country to legalize civil unions for gay couples, granting them rights similar to those enjoyed by married couples on matters such as inheritance, pensions and child custody.
The ranching country of 3.4 million also lets homosexuals serve in the armed forces and allows terminally ill patients to refuse treatment. (Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Xavier Briand)