Revolution #90, May 27, 2007
Pope & PAN Lash Back
Abortion Decriminalized in Mexico City
On April 24, in the midst of fierce controversy, a law was passed in Mexico City decriminalizing abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Even with its limitations, the passage of this law in the face of a reactionary campaign led by the Catholic Church attempting to stop it--including direct intervention by the Pope himself--signals a real change in the lives of millions of women in Mexico and has potential implications for Mexican society and Latin America as a whole. And legalizing abortion in Mexico City further unleashed religious reactionaries in Mexico behind a program of pushing women back into being completely dominated by men.
In the weeks leading up to the passage of the law by the Mexico City government, the Catholic Church and the right-wing ruling party, PAN (National Action Party), which is allied with the church, unleashed a campaign of threats and intimidation in a concerted effort to prevent the law from being passed. Ugly anti-women death threats were sent by e-mail to organizations such as Catholic Women for the Right to Choose who advocated for the law. There was the spectacle of the church hierarchy threatening the legislators who voted for the measure with excommunication, an emissary from the Vatican coming to Mexico to coordinate the campaign against abortion, and the Pope personally entering into the debate to declare that abortion is a “grave moral disorder.”
Reality for Women in Mexico: Forced Childbirth or Risking Their Lives with Illegal Abortions
The reality for millions of women in Mexico who face unwanted pregnancy has been the choice of forced childbirth or risking their lives to seek a clandestine abortion. While figures vary, it has been estimated that the number of illegal abortions in Mexico is as high as 500,000 per year, and the National Council on Population (CONAPO) estimated that illegal abortions are the fourth leading cause of death of women of reproductive age. (Cited in La Jornada, September 26, 2004) The director of Mexico City's Women's Institute says that about1,500 women a year die from illegal abortions. (“Mexico City Officials Legalize Abortion,” Associated Press, April 24, 2007)
This death toll, and the widespread forcing of women to have children against their will, is the product of patriarchal tradition and medieval morality that have been enforced by church and government in Mexico (and most countries of Latin America). These anti-abortion laws keep women from even having the fundamental right to control their own reproduction. In the face of this horror, for the Pope—whose church enforces this oppression—to declare that abortion is a “grave moral disorder” is completely and deeply criminal!!
Now, women in Mexico City--and those from other parts of the country who have the means to travel to the capital--will be able to obtain a legal abortion. And the controversy that has swirled over the passage of the law is opening up a spirit of rebellion against the church’s blatant efforts to impose their dictates on women and society in general. All this is bringing to the fore struggle overthe role and position of women, about the role of the church in Mexican society, and about science vs. religious obscurantism.
The Importance of Abortion Rights for the Emancipation of ALL Humanity
Many of the advocates for the law within the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District, the legislative body for Mexico City, cast the law as a public health issue--the need for the thousands of abortions that are going on to be regulated and safe. This is one very important dimension. But on an even deeper level, the controversy tapped into and gave voice to a growing sense that women should have the right to decide what to do with their own lives and bodies. In a society which has traditionally enforced on women their role as the bearers of children, this is a just and defiant stand.
In the weeks and days leading up to the vote, women and men poured into the streets in lively demonstrations demanding the right to choose. On the day of the vote in the Legislative Assembly, young women got out into the streets in a car caravan, declaring, “We are not machines for reproduction, we are women with rights and choice” and “We are not one, we are not ten, look Norberto, count us well” (referring to Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the head of the church hierarchy in Mexico).
One of the pro-choice organizations ran a TV ad in which a young woman, Paulina del Carmen Ramírez Jacinto, defiantly spoke out. In a case that received much notoriety in 1999, Paulina was raped when she was 13 years old--and then, in just as brutal an act, she was prevented by the authorities in Baja California from getting an abortion and was forced to bear the child. She said: “Each is free to think as they please, but it is the woman who must decide, because it's her opinion and her body. I didn't decide; other people decided for me." She was referring to the priests and state officials who forced her to carry the baby to term.
Big changes have been taking place in Mexican society with the opening up of the country to much greater imperialist penetration. One result of this is that women have been driven in large numbers into the workforce, in factories and maquiladoras, where they face brutally exploitative conditions. And these women have been preyed upon and murdered, particularly in the border region of the country. Though these changes in the economic base of society have brought new forms of oppression, they have also undermined and called into question the traditional views of women’s role that arose on the foundation of feudal and semi-feudal relations. This has opened up the question of women participating in society as full human beings with full rights--including the right to determine whether and when to have children--which is an absolute necessity for the emancipation of humanity. And any talk of revolution, liberation, or emancipation that leaves out one half of humanity is empty--and worse.
Soledad Loaeza, researcher at the College of Mexico, spoke to some of how all this is being posed for millions of women:
“In the past, they referred to us as: daughters, mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters, cousins, nieces, goddaughters. We were understood only in relation to a man--father, husband, boyfriend, brother, cousin… As an individual, a woman didn't exist. So much so that in many cases when that man left our lives, his departure generated a severe crisis of identity.”
She went on to link the right of women to control of their own reproduction to the changing role that they are able to play in society:
“[B]ut I believe that the determining factor of the sense of liberty that we have gained has been the possibility to choose how many children we want to have. This is a vital point that each of us must resolve in the realm of her own private conscience. When this decision is in the hands of others, we hand over our liberty.” (“Por el Derecho a Decidir,” La Jornada, March 22, 2007)
The debate over the passage of the law has heightened the polarization in society and become a lightning rod for right-wing forces trying to reassert the church’s oppressive views on the role of women. The church hierarchy openly called upon doctors to refuse to carry out the law, and the Association of Catholic Attorneys appealed to the Attorney General to declare the law unconstitutional on the basis of violation of the rights of the fetus. They are raising up the so-called “murder” of a clump of cells--which have no independent life outside the woman’s uterus--in order to restore a murderous policy of forcing women into unsafe illegal abortions that cost the lives of thousands of women every year. This campaign of guilt and shame is an attempt to maintain women in the role of incubators for children.
Again, from the point of view of emancipating humanity, the freedom for women to make these basic decisions about their own lives and bodies--without any guilt or shame attached--is an absolute requirement for women being able to participate fully and equally in society, to plan their own futures, to take charge of their lives and, even more, to dream and strive and make the fullest contributions in all spheres toward the advancement of humankind.
Clash Over the Role of the Church
The debate over decriminalizing abortion has also become the occasion for a major clash between those who advocate a secular society and those who are seeking to increase the role of the church in society and the government. The Mexican Constitution strictly mandates formal separation of church and state, prohibiting the church from entering into the affairs of state and prohibiting government officials from mixing religious belief with their government functions. Even as the hold of the church’s traditional morality and values on the population has been eroded in response to profound changes going on in the economic and social structure and in the thinking of the people, the ruling PAN has been enacting laws designed to increase the ability of agents of the church to interfere directly and openly in the political life of the country. One glaring manifestation of this took place last year in states controlled by the PAN where science textbooks were yanked from schools because the Catholic Church objected to their treatment of human sexuality. And at the recent congress of ProVida, the reactionary anti-abortion organization, there was an official honor guard from the Mexican army.
The tradition of separation of church and state has been associated with significant sections of the ruling class in Mexico, now centered around the PRD, as well as being something supported by major sections of the population there. The church’s blatant attempt to forcibly reassert their authority in society and to interfere directly in the enactment of the law decriminalizing abortion was an ominous sign of efforts to erode the secular character of the state and impose religious dictates around important social issues. One columnist in La Jornada sounded the alarm over the encroachment of the church into the affairs of state:
“According to polls, 55% of the Mexican population is in agreement with the decriminalization of abortion. Despite this, the church and its party [referring to the PAN] ignore reality. They want a society which conforms to their dogmas. Anything outside of that is hell. Led exclusively by men, the Vatican recently asserted that abortion, euthanasia, the 'day after pill,' in vitro laboratories, and parliaments that approve laws that are counter to the 'human being' (that is to say, to the teachings of the church) are 'terrorists.' Here, the PAN and its fascist groups, the cardinal accused of protecting pederasty, are the truth and the life. I personally don’t want this truth nor this life.” (Ivan Restrepo, “Aborto y Esado Laico,” La Jornada, April 30, 2000)
Closely connected with the resistance to the church’s interference in the realm of law were the refutations of the grossly unscientific claims being made by both the church and the PAN about how abortion is murder and life begins at conception. Another columnist wrote in La Jornada : “It is enough to clear up the confusion between life and a biological individual, such as in the lesson in basic facts which was written with crystal clarity in these pages last Saturday by Julio Muñoz Rubio: neither the zygote nor the embryo nor the fetus are biological individuals. Instead, they are living cells, the same as those of all living organisms… If the anti-abortionists believe that ending the life of a clump of cells is murder, then the obscurantist Cardinal Lopez Trujillo [the emissary sent by the Vatican to lead the church’s fight against the decriminalization of abortion] commits murder when he eats a carrot or polishes off a chicken.” (Jose Blanco, “Todos Ganan, La Iglesia Pierde,” La Jornada, March 27, 2007)
The battle to establish a scientific understanding of these basic facts in opposition to the church’s lies and distortions is an important front of the battle around abortion and of breaking the chains of obscurantism and unscientific thinking that the church is trying to enforce on society.
The struggle continues, even as the law has gone into effect and women are now able to receive safe, legal abortions. The ferment over these questions, the profound shifts that are taking place in the mood and thinking of women, as well as their actual ability to control their lives can contribute to the process of people beginning to recognize and reach for a whole different way that society can be and to dig into what it will take to get there.
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