LIMA, Peru-With the right to life enshrined in the constitutions of many Latin American countries, many believe that the legalization of abortion here is impossible.

They may soon be proved wrong. Feminists and pro-abortion activists recently agreed upon a strategy which they now see as a necessary first step to legal abortion. They will now attempt to create an “abortion-friendly culture” in the region.

Latin America has always been considered a deeply pro-life continent. A pregnant woman is described in Spanish as “en estado de buena esperanza” — “in a state of good hope.”

The pro-life mentality of the people is even reflected in the countries' constitutions, with the exception of Cuba. Countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Costa Rica have wording which specifically recognizes the unborn child, giving the child full constitutional rights.

The most aggressive campaigns to at least partially legalize abortion in Latin American countries have failed. Colombia recently rejected an amendment to the constitution that would have opened the doors to abortion. Several attempts to legalize abortion in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Peru have also failed despite heavy investment, of money and effort, by pro-abortion international organizations.

And even if abortion, under the guise of “reproductive rights” is eventually approved as a human right at international forums, local analysts believe that governments in the region would face widespread internal opposition if they tried to enforce it in their countries. Any international agreement would simply be regarded as outside interference.

With this in mind, in April 1998, 17 national feminist organizations joined forces under the Latin American Committee for the Defense of Women Rights, known by its Spanish-language acronym, CLADEM. They met in Panama City to launch a pro-abortion campaign called “Education in Human Rights from a Gender Perspective.”

Financed by powerful U.S. pro-abortion organizations such as the Packard Foundation, sponsored by Hewlett-Packard Co., the campaign organizers distributed “pro-abortion kits” among delegates which included manuals on how to promote the “interruption of pregnancy” while avoiding the “A” word.

CLADEM leaders made it clear as to what their objectives are: to start a campaign aimed at creating a climate more favorable to abortion and to find loopholes in the pro-life body of laws.

“It's evident that most of the countries, not only in the region, would disagree with the idea of modifying the 50-year-old Universal Declaration of Human Rights to fit the gender perspective,” said CLADEM regional coordinator Susana Chiarotti.

“Officials at the United Nations have told us, in private conversations, that resistance to grant full sexual autonomy is a worldwide problem, and not only in Latin America,” Chiarotti said. “In Norway, for example, the government's coalition led by the Christian Democrats are trying to put some restrictions on abortion.”

The feminist leader said that CLADEM's leaders decided to discuss the possibility of “putting some makeup on our demands” in order to make them more palatable. “Our conclusion was clear and firm: No matter how, [abortion] is what we want to see in the Human Rights Declaration. If it takes us 100 years to achieve it, it doesn't matter. At least we know that we are committed to a process that may take several years.”

Will Brazil Be First?

But they may not have to wait so long, should the feminist lobby in Brazil succeed in its push for a pro-abortion amendment to the country's legislation. In fact, due to the maneuvers of feminist leader Ruth Cardoso, wife of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil could well become the first democratic country to legalize abortion in Latin America. In early July, the president put pressure on the Congress' commission which is reviewing the Penal Code, to insert a clause which would allow for abortion.

Article 128 of the Brazilian penal code — as in the rest of Latin America — defines abortion as a crime, but allows for exceptions in which it is not a punishable crime, such as in the cases of rape, incest or if the mother's life is endangered.

The Penal Code's reviewing commission, headed by Congressman Luiz Vicente Cernicchiaro, proposed a change to the wording of Article 128. The article which currently states that abortion “deserves no punishment,” would state that abortion “is not a crime.” Such a change would make abortion legal in some circumstances.

They are financed by U.S. pro-abortion organizations such as the Packard Foundation, sponsored by Hewlett-Packard Co.

Several organizations, including the Brazilian bishops'conference, have said the new wording would betray the spirit of the constitution. Currently, the constitution recognizes the rights of the unborn. Archbishop Claudio Hummes of Sao Paulo, head of the bishops' conference's Life and Family Commission, expressed the bishops' concerns over the proposed change to the Minister of Justice Renan Calheiros, who requested that Cernicchiaro maintain the original Article 128.

President Cardoso intervened to force both Calheiros and Cernicchiaro to accept the new, pro-abortion version. If a change were to take effect, abortion would become a right.

Congress is scheduled to approve the final version later this year. Because Cardoso has the majority alliance party, it's likely that new pro-abortion legislation will be approved, unless a strong pro-life lobby succeeds in convincing him to change course.

In other countries, more subtle, slower-paced efforts toward legalizing abortion have also been taken.

In Chile, local feminist groups sparked a debate by publishing the conclusions of a recent study allegedly carried out by American scientist Allen Wilcox, from the University of Northern Carolina. According to the study, the implantation of the embryo occurs eight days after conception, and that the more time it takes to implant in the uterus, the less chance there is of a successful pregnancy.

Waldo Sepulveda, an obstetriciangynecologist, even suggested that since this is the case, life begins at implantation and not conception.

But Dr. Patricio Yepes, a specialist in human conception and a local pro-life leader, pointed out that “implantation has nothing to do with the concrete fact that a new human life began at conception.”

“Such an arbitrary interpretation is not just an abstract scientific matter,” Yepes said. “It would have an impact on the law.”

Another attempt to legalize abortion has taken place in Nicaragua, where the National Assembly will soon discuss a reform of the Penal Code there.

A new article, backed by the local National Feminist Coalition, would make abortion legal in cases of rape, malformation of the unborn or the risk of the life of the mother.

“It's impossible to request the total legalization of abortion, but this would certainly be a significant step forward,” said Nicaraguan feminist leader Eva Maria Senqui.

Rafael Cabrera, president of the Nicaraguan Pro-life Association, agreed: “Asignificant war is ahead. Accepting one form of abortion would turn massive legal abortion into a matter of time.”

Cabrera also warned pro-lifers in the region, “We can't stand still, awaiting these aggressions, because one day, somewhere, they [pro-abortion-ists] will succeed. We have to take the initiative right now.”

Alejandro Bermudez writes from Lima, Peru.