Latin America's Abortion Battles: Advocates for Women's Rights Sense Progress in the Ongoing Battle for Better Reproductive Health Care Services
Mariner, Joanne, Conscience
IT WAS ONE OF THE UGLIER MOMENTS IN LATIN America's increasingly heated debate over reproductive rights and abortion. Argentina's minister of health, Gines Gonzalez Garcia, went on record in February to state a few compelling facts and hazard some conclusions. Estimating that there were half a million abortions annually in Argentina, Gonzalez suggested that decriminalizing the procedure could reduce the level of maternal mortality. Because abortion in Argentina is illegal in almost all circumstances, it is generally unsafe. Gonzalez also affirmed that condom distribution to the young was an effective means of preventing HW/AIDS.
From a health perspective, his comments were innocuous. But as a political matter, they were anything but. The societal debate over abortion and, more broadly, sexuality and reproductive freedom, has long been simmering in Argentina. Last year, when the government named a woman justice to the Supreme Court who publicly supported decriminalizing abortion, religious and antichoice groups were enraged. To appoint to the court an "abortionist," as they called her, was a worrying signal, one hinting at possible policy changes to come.
And so the backlash against Gonzalez's statements was immediate. Within days, Bishop Antonio Baseotto, a hard-line army prelate, had sent Gonzalez a letter that accused him of justifying murder by encouraging abortion. Quoting a passage from the bible, the letter suggested that Gonzalez should have a millstone tied to his neck and "be cast into the sea."
The Baseotto letter would have been threatening and offensive in any context, but Argentina's tragic history made it worse. During the country's 1976-83 military dictatorship, some 1,500 to 2,000 perceived subversives were killed by being thrown from airplanes into the Atlantic. A navy officer responsible for some of the murders later said that a Catholic chaplain had assured him, after hearing his confession, that it was "a Christian form of death." And in Argentina, unlike in several other Latin American countries, the church hierarchy was largely silent in the face of military abuses.
Baseotto's letter and the public outcry that followed threatened to over-shadow the question that sparked it: the possibility of decriminalizing abortion. But the emotion that the controversy generated was not unprecedented. Clashes over reproductive rights have been frequent, in Argentina and other countries in the region, and arguably more acrimonious than ever before. They typically pit hard-line religious leaders and militant antichoice groups against public health authorities, feminist activists and progressive legislators. And all over Latin America, the public is following these debates closely.
Bishop Baseotto's reaction was, admittedly, more exaggerated than the norm. But the church hierarchy, bitterly opposed to possible changes in the region's restrictive abortion laws, has been quick to pull out its biggest guns whenever the subject of abortion comes up for debate. From Argentina to Colombia, Bolivia to Nicaragua, health officials, judges, legislators and others responsible for abortion and contraception policies have risked expulsion from the church. The pressures have not been subtle. "While we were debating the law [on reproductive health]," said Alicia Tare, a lawmaker from Argentina's Santa Fe province, "all the representatives received a letter from the archbishop threatening us with excommunication."
Church authorities deem abortion, contraception and other sex- and reproduction-related matters to be religious issues meriting a doctrinal response. Their approach has faced increasing resistance, however, by feminists and others who recognize that control over maternity, sexuality and reproduction is crucial to women's autonomy. And these groups know that barriers to legal abortion, in particular, take a devastating toll on women's health and lives.
As it is now being fought, much of the battle is over conceptual understandings. …