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I was taught that "esto" can be used when referring to an idea but I have seen cases where "este" or "esta" is used.

In this sentence:

Aunque el proyecto de ley fue rechazado, esta ha sido la primera vez que la iniciativa de aprobar el aborto llega tan lejos.

The "esta" is referring to an idea but it is saying that it is "la primera vez" which is feminine. Is this why "esta" is used instead of "esto"?

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Yes, the sentence is

Esta ha sido la primera vez 

"La primera vez" is the subject, and it's feminine, so "esta" must be feminine too. You're right: it's referring to "primera vez", not to the "idea".

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  • I still have to push myself away from using accent marks with "ésta". Why RAE? haha.
    – FGSUZ
    Aug 26 '18 at 23:42
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In these kind of sentences, este/esta acts as a pronoun. If you want to know which noun it is replacing, just convert it into an adjective by moving the corresponding noun in the sentence:

Esta ha sido la primera vez que la iniciativa de aprobar el aborto llega tan lejos.
Esta vez ha sido la primera que la iniciativa de aprobar el aborto llega tan lejos.

You can do this with any sentence of this kind. The resulting senteces will only make sense if you move the right noun:

Este es el último arroz que cocino, me salen fatal.
Este arroz es el último que cocino, me salen fatal.

Este es el mejor día de mi vida.
Este día es el mejor de mi vida.

Esta será la primera visita que hago a mi padre en años.
Esta visita será la primera que hago a mi padre en años.

De todos los cuadros que he visto, este es el que más me gusta.
De todos los que he visto, este cuadro es el que más me gusta.

You also mention esto, but this word can act only as a pronoun, you cannot turn it into an adjective.

Esto es lo mejor que me ha pasado en la vida.

In this case esto replaces something that is not present in the sentence, something that has probably been mentioned before in the conversation.

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  • Esto is used to refer to general things/situations.

You can replace it with "All this" in most cases.

  • Esta/Este is a deterministic article, followed by a noun (and its complements).

  • Ésta/Éste (written este/esta by new RAE rules) are personal pronouns, serving as a replacement for the previous example, if its already given.

Note that Ésta/Éste (written este/esta) can also be a degrading and a (not so) pejorative way of referring to a person, as in "This dude".

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