The Catholic Church in Latin America is losing control of the pro-life movement. Can it win it back?

Pro-life supporters pray during a 2019 protest outside the local congress in Oaxaca, Mexico. In late July, Mexico's bishops called on Catholics to speak out ahead of a ruling from the country's Supreme Court, which could lead to a nationwide decriminalization of abortion. (CNS photo/Jorge Luis Plata, Reuters)Pro-life supporters pray during a 2019 protest outside the local congress in Oaxaca, Mexico. In late July, Mexico's bishops called on Catholics to speak out ahead of a ruling from the country's Supreme Court, which could lead to a nationwide decriminalization of abortion. (CNS photo/Jorge Luis Plata, Reuters)

Feminist social movements have been mobilizing to decriminalize abortion in Latin American nations in recent years, provoking clashes with pro-life movements and the Catholic Church across the region. The latest campaigns have begun in Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and the Mexican state of Veracruz, where legislative changes to allow abortion are being debated.

Today, only Cuba, Guyana, French Guyana and Uruguay, as well as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, allow abortion without condition in the first weeks of a pregnancy. In some Latin American countries, women can terminate pregnancy only under three conditions: if the pregnancy poses a risk to the mother’s health, if the fetus has a fatal condition or if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

On Sept. 28, the Day of Global Action for Legal and Safe Abortion, women’s groups marched in several countries to press for the legalization of abortion. Activists for access to contraception and abortion charge that even when national laws allow abortion under limited conditions in countries like Brazil and Colombia, women face extralegal obstacles as hospitals and doctors refuse to perform the procedure or create technical barriers.

The church has been campaigning against further legislative liberalization of abortion laws as evangelical Protestant groups and right-wing movements join the debate on the contentious issue.

“In [the Mexican state of] Veracruz, hospitals have historically failed to obey the law and give access to safe abortion to girls with ages varying from 10 to 14 who had been raped,” said Luz Estrada, the coordinator for gender violence and human rights issues for Mexican Catholics for the Right to Decide.

The church has been campaigning against further legislative liberalization of abortion laws throughout Latin America, making its case for the sacredness of life from conception. Now new social actors, especially evangelical Protestant groups and new right-wing movements in the region, have joined the debate on the contentious issue.

The Catholic Church in Latin America has surrendered the leading role it once had in the cultural dialogue over abortion, according to Franciso Borba Ribeiro Neto, the director of the Pontifical Catholic University’s Center of Faith and Culture in São Paulo, Brazil. While most people in Latin America “see abortion as a terrible kind of murder,” he said, “there’s a rift in value and practice.” At the same time people repudiate abortion, they believe that society should not seek to punish a person who undergoes the procedure.

“Catholics in general have adopted a stern condemnation of abortion over the past 40 years,” he said. But the church’s position did not allow for nuance, allowing left-wing movements some success in advocating for liberalization of abortion laws. As the cultural influence of Catholic groups that defended life diminished, new pro-life organizations, not connected to the church, emerged.

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New protagonists in the debate have goals that are focused as much on right-wing political success as they are on pro-life principles.

The Peruvian group Con mis hijos no se metas (“Don’t mess with my children”) and the Ecuadorian umbrella movement Consejo de Resistencia Fe, Vida y Familia (“Council of Resistance Faith, Life and Family”), among others, have been active in campaigns against same-sex marriage, “gender ideology” in schools and abortion.

Church officials and cultural commentators say these new protagonists in the debate have goals that are focused as much on right-wing political success as they are on pro-life principles.

The Peruvian journalist Jonathan Castro reports that some of these emerging movements have been encouraged and trained by conservative organizations in the United States. His article reveals that Christian Rosas, the spokesperson for Con mis hijos no se metas, attended a training session in 2018 sponsored by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization, in the United States.

Mr. Castro’s story was published as part of the Columbia University–led project Transnacionales de la fe (“Transnationals of Faith”), a consortium of Latin American newspapers investigating the connections between United States conservative groups and the new Christian right in Latin America.

“Now there’s a big orchestration of Christian churches taking part in the debate on sexual and reproductive women’s rights, sometimes leading to openly political movements,” said Aura Cuasapud, legal advisor of the Colombian branch of Catholics for the Right to Choose, an organization inspired by Catholics for Choice in the United States but which operates autonomously in Latin America. “Many of those groups are equipped with arguments that come from the United States.”

In the Dominican Republic, the Most Rev. Victor Masalles, bishop of Baní and one of the most active Catholic leaders in the campaign against abortion, agrees that over the past few years the civic discussion of abortion has been transformed by such movements, and he worries that some in the church could unwittingly be drawn into political entanglements. “There’s certainly a pro-Trump movement of fundamentalist nature, so the left wing has been accusing us of being far-right-wingers,” he lamented.

“The same way society discards the poor or the elders—as is happening now, during the Covid-19 pandemic—life in the mother’s womb is sometimes discarded. But we mustn’t discard anybody.”

At the same time, evangelical Protestant organizations have been trying to “take advantage” of the Catholic Church, said Bishop Masalles. “We have a circumstantial unity with them during pro-life campaigns, but they want to gain ground on us,” he told America.

The Dominican Republic is one of the few Latin American or Caribbean countries where abortion is totally forbidden. But a debate on its decriminalization—under the three usual conditions—resumed recently as part of the process of approval of a new penal code. After much pressure from the pro-life movement, Dominican legislators decided to address the idea of decriminalizing abortion in separate legislation.

The Rev. Mario de la Cruz, episcopal vicar of the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo, fears that decriminalizing abortion even just under the usual three exceptions could lead to the eventual acceptance of elective abortion in Dominican society. Bishop Masalles agrees.

“The three conditions allow for broad application. It’s a matter of interpretation,” he said.

Father de la Cruz said that the church will keep campaigning against any change in the current law; at the same time it will try to raise consciousness of the sacredness of life in society. “The same way society discards the poor or the elders—as is happening now, during the Covid-19 pandemic—life in the mother’s womb is sometimes discarded. But we mustn’t discard anybody,” he said.

In Ecuador, rather than perceiving new voices on the issue as a threat, the Catholic Church has aligned itself with a broader pro-life coalition that includes evangelicals. “We have exclusively Catholic initiatives that have led programs in defense of life and family for years. But at times we open space for movements of our evangelical brothers. We know that each one of us has a unique way of defending life,” Archbishop Luis Herrera of Guayaquil told America.

The church in the region missed an early opportunity to promote a civic discussion of women’s rights and protection, but that remains one possible way to resume a lead role in the pro-life struggle.

In 2019, an attempted reform of Ecuador’s penal code included the decriminalization of abortion in cases of rape and incest and if the fetus had a terminal condition. After much pressure from pro-life campaigners, the reform was not approved. Abortion remained legal in the country only if the mother’s health was in danger or if the pregnancy was the result of the violation of a woman with mental disability.

In August 2020, another controversy regarding abortion began when the Ecuadorian Congress approved new health care legislation. One of the articles of the new law requires that women arriving at a hospital while terminating a pregnancy must be treated as obstetrics emergencies and that hospitals and medical professionals cannot deny assistance in such cases.

“That article doesn’t promote nor decriminalize abortion. But there’s a risk of leaving an open door to justify abortion,” argued Mr. Cabrera. “Some groups promote abortion using chemical substances, for instance. They could transform a procedure like that in an emergency and a doctor would be obliged to assist the patient [and complete the procedure],” he said.

The church and other members of the pro-life alliance have campaigned for a veto of that provision from President Lenín Moreno. “People worried about their survival during the pandemic. They took advantage of the lack of social reaction. But we have been mobilized for a veto,” Mr. Cabrera said. On Sept. 25, the president vetoed the new bill.

In Mexico, the clash between pro-life and pro-choice groups has been partially connected to party politics. In July, the State of Veracruz was at the center of a national dispute when the Supreme Court reviewed a petition from Catholics for the Right to Decide and other groups to decriminalize abortion there during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

In Mexico “we fear that if the issue of abortion goes back to discussion in court, it might end up being decriminalized, first in Veracruz, then in the whole country.”

According to the Rev. José Manuel Suazo, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Xalapa, where the campaign has concentrated, the effort was initially begun by state legislators from Morena, President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador’s left-wing party.

“In 2017, they tried to change the law in Veracruz to decriminalize abortion under any circumstances during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. But the change was considered unconstitutional,” he told America. An attempt to change state legislation followed. The case ended up in Mexico’s Supreme Court, which rejected the petition to decriminalize abortion in July.

But only technical aspects of the appeal factored in the court’s decision, according to Father Suazo. Now “we fear that if the issue of abortion goes back to discussion in court, it might end up being decriminalized, first in Veracruz, then in the whole country.”

According to Father Suazo, Mr. López Obrador’s Secretariat of Home Affairs has been promoting initiatives to decriminalize abortion in many states. “The current administration has a plan to liberate abortion, impose gender ideology and allow same-sex unions,” Father Suazo alleged. He hopes Mexicans will oppose the Morena party in the 2021 legislative and municipal elections.

Abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy is currently allowed in Mexico City and Oaxaca. According to Ms. Estrada, women from across Mexico travel to the capital to undergo abortion procedures.

Ms. Estrada said that she and other members of Catholics for the Right to Decide have been threatened and verbally attacked. “What [the pro-life campaigners] see as a type of international conspiracy for the decriminalization of abortion is in fact the progress of women’s rights,” she argued. The group’s intention, she explained, is to “fight for women’s health and dignity.”

All the same, “abortion should be a woman’s last resort,” she added.

In Latin America, where high rates of violence against women have been tolerated, there is an enduring sense that men own women’s bodies, according to the Brazilian feminist theologian Luiza Tomita. “That’s why it’s so hard to discuss sexuality and reproductive rights in the region. Such a patriarchalism comes from our colonial times and is still alive,” she said.

The church in the region missed an early opportunity to promote a civic discussion of women’s rights and protection, but that remains one possible way to resume a lead role in the pro-life struggle, said Mr. Ribeiro Neto.

“The church must show solidarity to pregnant women in crisis,” he said. “There are movements throughout Latin America to support women and avoid abortion, with programs that include adoption, foster care and all kinds of help.”

By stressing such concrete actions in support of pregnant women, he said, the church could avoid the U.S.-style politicization of abortion that now haunts the pro-life movement in Latin America, allowing the church to propose its own views on how to deal with unplanned pregnancies.

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