Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Is Ecuador's Correa Blurring the Lines between Religion and Politics?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Is Ecuador's Correa Blurring the Lines between Religion and Politics?

Article excerpt

When President Rafael Correa learned Pope Francis would visit Ecuador this summer he tweeted, "My joy is immense!"

President Correa has long identified as a leftist and a humanist, but during his seven years in office his Catholic faith has increasingly come to influence his policies on education, reproductive health, and poverty reduction.

Late last year, President Correa appointed a pro-life head to a national family planning program who favors an abstinence-only approach. Meanwhile, he aggressively stifled proposals to amend abortion laws to allow for it in cases of rape. Taken together, these moves signal a conservative shift that some observers say could undermine Ecuador's progress on maternal health, particularly among teen, indigenous, and poor families.

"This isn't a debate about morals, but about not having access to information, to methods of contraception and abortion," says Virginia Gomez de la Torre, a physician and reproductive rights activist in Quito. "But the moral and religious voices are louder and more influential than we are."

Strides in maternal healthEcuador has sharply reduced teen pregnancies over the past four years. Pregnancies among young women between the ages of 11 and 14 have decreased 18 percent since 2011, the same year that Ecuador created its National Interagency Strategy for Family Planning and the Prevention of Teen Pregnancies (ENIPLA). Led by the ministries of education and health, it has an annual budget of more than $2 million and focuses on preventive doctor visits and family planning, including access to the morning-after pill.

But last November, Correa made a surprise shift at ENIPLA by folding it into the executive branch and appointing a pro-life activist as its head. Monica Hernandez, a political appointee associated with the conservative Opus Dei organization, is been a vocal opponent of ENIPLA since its creation, and her appointment was welcomed by a growing crop of pro-life groups here.

"We applaud the new leadership of ENIPLA and trust that it will change its strategy," says law student Angel Eduardo Gaibor Orellana, a spokesperson for Ecuador Provida, a pro-life organization. "Now it can focus on family values and responsibility, as a way to prevent future abortions."

Ecuador is among the most Catholic nations in Latin America: An estimated 79 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. Some 84 percent of Ecuadorean Catholics say abortion is morally wrong, as do 95 percent of Protestants in the country, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.

The country also has the highest teen pregnancy rate in South America: 81 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19. From 2004 until 2011, before the creation of ENIPLA, the rate of teenage pregnancy grew by 74 percent.

Correa had a Catholic upbringing, and attends mass every Sunday with his family. …

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