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News > Latin America

Argentine Church Spars with Abortion Campaigners Ahead of Debate

  • Protesters advocate for legal and safe abortions

    Protesters advocate for legal and safe abortions | Photo: Reuters

Published 16 July 2018

In schools and universities, as well as workplaces and in the streets, people are discussing the upcoming debate to see whether Argentina will join Uruguay and Cuba in becoming the only countries in Latin America to fully legalize abortion.

Alberto Bochatey, the bishop of La Plata, believes that even debating whether women should be granted the right to access abortion and interrupt safely and voluntarily their pregnancy is unacceptable, he declared in an interview three weeks out from a Senate vote on whether to adopt a bill that would decriminalize abortion in Argentina.

 Argentina: The Handmaid's Tale Author Backs Abortion Rights


"Is it a crime or is it a right? Pro-abortion groups say it's a right, but many of us say that taking a human life is a crime," the 62-year-old told AFP. "You cannot debate whether or not it's legal to commit a crime, that wouldn't be a democratic debate."

Bochatey points to the Bible to elaborate his position, quoting the fifth commandment that says: 'thou shalt not kill.'

But he adds with great mercy that the sanction for abortion should not be penal detention. "What we're proposing is that the penalty is not incarceration or a great punishment," said the graduate in bioethics and moral theology.

Pro-choice campaigners like 67-year-old Elsa Schvartzman say this is a question of social justice and protecting women's rights.

Schvartzman, a founding member of the campaign to legalize abortion in Argentina, says it's a question not just of rights but also of health. "It's about human rights, social justice and public health," the sociologist and mother of three told AFP. "We're talking about avoidable deaths of women, the public health of women, also kids and kids that are left without their mother. We're talking about the right to live in dignity, with autonomy, to be able to choose freely. It's a social justice case because an abortion isn't the same for someone who can afford it and one who can't."

Schvartzman believes that, at the very least, opening this debate has been hugely influential in broadening people's horizons. "One of the aims of the campaign was to work on a cultural exchange," she said. "We've managed to get people talking about abortion, to discuss it, it's in the streets, it's no longer a taboo, it's no longer stigmatized. Right now, it's unavoidable."

A bill that would decriminalize abortion in the first 14 weeks and in cases where the infant would not survive after birth was passed by the lower house Chamber of Deputies last month, before the upper house Senate began debating it two weeks ago. A final debate on the matter in the staunchly Catholic homeland of Pope Francis will be held on August 8.

Since the debates began, pro-life campaigners have identified themselves with a green scarf, those anti-abortion with a light blue neckerchief.

But the campaigns haven't been entirely peaceful, with claims of assaults, intimidation and threats. "There have been people physically assaulted, supporters' premises vandalized, in others, they've written on the pavement or on the shop front," said Schvartzman. "And there are serious issues on social media."

The subject sparked intense debate in Congress's lower house, with entire days taken over by discussions involving specialists and activists, before the bill was passed by 129 votes to 125. Liberal president Mauricio Macri pushed through the bill even though he is "in favor of life" —of the unborn fetus, not the pregnant woman's.

In most countries in the region, it is permitted only in cases of rape, a threat to the life of the mother or if the fetus is disabled. Only in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua — all in Central America — does abortion remain totally banned.

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