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Abortion on the Rise In Latin America

Pro-abortion activist are using high-profile cases and secular media to push for legalized abortion in Latin America.

BY ALEJANDRO BERMÚDEZ

Latin America Correspondent

October 1-7, 2006 Issue | Posted 9/27/06 at 11:00 AM

 

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — September headlines showcased conflicting signs from Latin American political life. On Sept. 20, Venezuela’s pro-abortion and irreverent president criticized America at the United Nations. On Sept. 5, Mexican courts ruled that the pro-family Felipe Calderon won the July presidential election.

But it was Aug. 25, a foggy Friday in Bogotá, that confirmed a disturbing trend in Latin America. That day will go down in history as the day the first legal abortion was performed in Colombia.

A group of doctors performed the abortion on an 11-year-old girl raped by her stepfather, while thousands of pro-life demonstrators protested outside the Simon Bolívar Hospital in Bogotá. At the same time, feminist organizations hailed the abortion in media outlets as a “big day” for the predominantly Catholic country.

But Monica Roa, the Colombian-born, New York-resident attorney who headed the legal and media battle that ended with the legalization of abortion by Colombia’s Constitutional Court last May, was not in Bogotá to listen to either side.

She was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, advising local feminist activists on how to exploit two high-profile rape stories to obtain the same result — the legalization of abortion by judicial means in Argentina.

The pro-abortion cause in Argentina has already made significant inroads lately. The Supreme Court of the province of Buenos Aires issued a 6-3 ruling in August, allowing a 19-year-old mentally handicapped woman, pregnant after being raped by a family member, to undergo an abortion.

The case made its way to the provincial Supreme Court after both a lower court and an appeal court ruled against the abortion.

Doctors at a public hospital refused to comply with the order, objecting that the baby was too far developed for the procedure to take place. But the abortion was finally performed at a private clinic.

The ‘American Way

Roa, a lawyer who works for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, believes that almost all moves to change legislation in Latin America through stealthy “baby steps” have failed, mostly because of a cultural opposition to abortion and the powerful influence of the Catholic Church.

So she and her colleagues at the center have opted for another strategy: Go high-profile, rely on the support of the secular media with emotional stories like rape cases, and then legalize abortion “the American way” — by the means of the Supreme Court.

Although Colombia is the Center for Reproductive Rights’ showcase, a similar strategy was used early this year in Mexico.

A rape victim, Paulina Ramirez, was used by the organization and its local partners to force the Mexican state of Baja California to approve abortion in cases of rape. The center sued the state “for preventing her access to abortion since the birth of the child violated her sexual integrity.” A court decision ordered the state to pay a civil reparation and “review procedures” to allow abortions when rape is argued.

“The coincidence in the strategy is not by  chance,” said Antonio Donato, a Brazilian pro-life leader who has been following the legal strategy used by pro-abortion advocates in Latin America and in his home country, where a recent move to legalize abortion by a congressional bill was defeated.

“They know they can’t count on the culture, they can’t count on the votes in Congress, and they can’t count on the people,” Donato said about abortion activists. “But they count on most of the secular media and know that our legal system is feeble and prone to being impressed with international agreements.”

International Law

Donato cited an essay written by Roa and two other members of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Lilian Sepulveda-Oliva and Luisa Cabal, entitled “What Role Does International Law Play in the Promotion and Advancing of Reproductive Rights in Latin America?”

In their essay, they openly propose using litigation based on international law to “develop new standards for the protection of reproductive rights” and to force local authorities to ignore national laws and allow abortion and “reproductive health” services for teenagers.

The essay acknowledges that their agenda is “still without a solid legal framework that reflects an obligation to exercise reproductive rights.” To get around this, the feminist lawyers advocate “proactive action” and “media exposure.”

Carlos Polo, director for Latin America of the U.S.-based Population Research Institute, said that the feminist legal strategy “clearly marks a completely new pattern.”

“The new priority of the pro-abortion organizations is not to prioritize congressional representatives or penal codes,” Polo said. “It is the reinterpretation of international pacts and treaties … to change the law by the means of either the executive branch of power or the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court.”

“They know that in Latin America, these branches are more sensitive to pressure from the media and far less accountable to the people than representatives.”

Speaking to The New York Times following the court decision in May that led to Colombia’s first abortion, Buenos Aires-based Mabel Bianco, president of the Foundation for Studies and Research on Women, said that the decision could trigger lawsuits in other countries demanding that abortion be legalized to conform with international treaties that address women’s health care.

“I think this decision will prompt countries in Latin America that have stringent legislation to reflect that abortion is not ideological, but a health care issue,” Bianco said.

In March 2005, Roa addressed a conference at New York University at which she provided a preview of the feminist strategy.

“Everything she said at that conference, including the invitation of Frances Kissling, from ‘Catholics for a Free Choice,’ to try to undermine Catholicism in Colombia, became true in the following months,” said Rafael Nieto Loayza, a former vice minister of justice in Colombia.

Nieto recently wrote in the Colombian daily El Tiempo that “those who seek the legalization [of abortion] have been exposed as the well-oiled machine they are.”

Wrote Nieto, “The fact that The New York Times was clearly explaining Roa’s strategy before anybody knew of it in Colombia reveals that there is an organized strategy to liberalize abortion in the region on the basis of ‘exceptions’ such as rape or fetal deformation.”

The Population Research Institute’s Polo admits that after Colombia, the new pro-abortion strategy looks quite effective, since most of the secular media is responding as predicted and, in places like Argentina, the judiciary is also cooperating.

“The media is not on our side and time is not on our side either; but the people and the culture is still on our side, and we have to take advantage of that,” Polo adds.

In fact, the massive anti-abortion demonstrations in Colombia have made feminists admit that full legalization of abortion in Colombia is not possible in the near future.

Hopeful Signs

And in Brazil, a recent poll has revealed that support for abortion is waning, not increasing. The company Datafolha polled 7,000 Brazilians and found that 63% of them believe the country’s abortion laws should remain untouched. Only 41% of those surveyed two years ago, in an official poll by the Ministry of Health, answered similarly.

Warned Polo, “With the massive media campaign, these figures will not hold for ever, so this is the time to come up with legislation to ‘shield’ the life of the unborn in the region.”

Alejandro Bermúdez

is based in Lima, Peru.