Catholics for Choice Presentation to the European Parliament on Reproductive Rights in Latin America

Catholics for Choice European Representative Elfriede Harth presented information to a hearing in the European Parliament on April 9, 2008, on women’s rights in Latin America and reproductive heath. It was attended by about 100 MEPs, and other staff from the parliament and the European Commission.

The hearing was sponsored by GUE-NGL party; and chaired by MEP Feleknas Uca (DE), a member of the Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Human Rights, MEP Eva-Britt Svensson (SV) Vice-Chair of the Parliament’s Women’s Rights Committee, and MEP Kartika Liotard (NL), a member of the Parliament’s Health Committee.

The hearing included testimony from experts from Nicaragua, Ecuador, Mexico, Chile, Brasil, Venezuela and Bolivia.  CFC’s own Elfriede Harth testified on the impact of religion on reproductive health and rights in Latin America.  Her testimony follows:

The impact of religion on sexual and reproductive health and rights in Latin America

Presented by Elfriede Harth
Catholics for Choice (CFC)
Delivered April 9, 2008, European Parliament Hearing
“Women’s Rights in Latin America: Reproductive Health”

Thank you very much for offering me the opportunity to address this audience on a topic that is so central to the mission of the organisation I represent, Catholics for Choice. Catholics for Choice – or CFC – is a nongovernmental organisation accredited with special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. For 35 years, CFC has advanced sexual and reproductive ethics that are based on justice, reflect a commitment to women’s well being, and respect and affirm the moral capacity of women and men to make decisions about their lives. Through discourse, education and advocacy, CFC works internationally to infuse these values into public policy, community life and Catholic social thinking and teaching.

CFC works in partnership with sister organisations in nine Latin American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Paraguay.  They play a leading role in the Latin American women’s rights movement, which fights for improved health, educational and legal conditions for women and girls, and by extension, everyone.

Together, we are an expression of Catholicism as it is lived by ordinary people:  We are part of the great majority of faithful in the Catholic church who disagree with the dictates of the Vatican on matters related to sex, to marriage, to family life and to motherhood. We are part of the great majority who believe the teaching of the primacy of conscience means that the individual must follow his or her own conscience—even if it is in conflict with church teaching.  We are part of the great majority who believe that this teaching requires, at a minimum, tolerance if not respect for another person’s decision.

I will speak today about religion and sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America. This is a vast subject but given the time limits I will center my remarks on just three points that I consider to be the most relevant and important.

First, I will briefly describe the changes that have taken place in the religious landscape of Latin America, and will place the issue of sexual and reproductive rights within that frame.

Second, I will speak about the power of the institutional Catholic church and their insistence on a rigid dogma that ignores the opinions of ordinary women and men and denies the reality of the conditions in which they live.

Third, I will address the importance of political signals that are sent by the EU and especially from this Parliament to the political decision-makers in Latin America as well as the Latin American people who are struggling to secure their fundamental human rights.

1. The church in Latin America

As in Europe, pluralism is growing in Latin America. Cultural patterns have been changing dramatically. Roughly 85% of Latin Americans are Catholic; this ranges from 75% in Uruguay, Nicaragua and Chile to almost 90% of their inhabitants baptized as Catholics in Argentina, Mexico and Peru.[1] But Evangelical communities are growing rapidly, attracting converts primarily from the socio-economically disadvantaged population.  The majority of those who remain Catholic have adopted independent views regarding issues concerning their private life: sexuality, family life, family planning, abortion. The church hierarchy is an increasingly non-representative minority on sexual and reproductive morals within Catholicism.

It is important to remember how out-of-step the Catholic hierarchy is with the lives of ordinary Catholics.  Women strongly support family planning. The Catholic hierarchy, both male and celibate, is twice removed from the impact of pregnancy.  Polls show that in Bolivia, approximately 70% of married Catholic women have used modern contraceptives at some point, while in Colombia this figure rises to 90%. (Data from 2003).

In Mexico 91% of Catholics believe adults should have access to contraception, while 81% approve of access to contraception for adolescents (Data from 2003).  In 2003, a majority – 91% in Mexico, 65% in Colombia, 68% Chile—favoured access to emergency contraception. 94% of Mexicans in urban areas favour the idea of the government promoting condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Also in 2003, 55% of Catholics in Bolivia believed that abortion should be permitted under certain circumstances, and so did 49% in Colombia, while over two thirds of Catholics in urban Mexico held in 2003 that abortion should be allowed in some cases or whenever a woman decides to have one.

Despite its dissonance with the views of ordinary Catholics, the church hierarchy has a tremendous influence on public policy related to sexual and reproductive health and rights.  Their frequently successful efforts to restrict access to information about sexual and reproductive health, to all forms of contraception including condoms and to therapeutic abortion even in life-threatening situations have had severe consequences.

Abortion statistics show that in Argentina 350.000 to 400.000 abortions took place in 2001, while in Colombia the figure was of 450.000 and in Peru almost one in three pregnancies end in an abortion.  The number in Brasil is estimated to be 1.5 million annually – almost all of them illegal.

Intelligent policy makers will ask themselves why so many Catholic women abort despite the church’s teaching.  The answer lies in the framing of the discourse, for it is wrong to consider the issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights, of marriage and divorce, of single parents and same-sex relationships as matters of religion.  Instead, they must be viewed within the context of public health and human rights.

And yet we find that governments in Latin America – even those who claim to have a progressive agenda – resist introducing sound sexual and reproductive health and rights policies in their countries, and resist improving the status of women, whom we know to be absolutely critical to development. We find that even a so-called progressive government, like that of Nicaragua, will go so far as to ban life-saving therapeutic abortions based on “religious” reasons.

In 2006, Nicaragua became the third Latin-American country, after El Salvador and Chile, to criminalize abortions under all circumstances; the laws had previously made an exception for therapeutic abortion, or abortions performed to save a woman’s life or health, or in the case of rape, incest or fetal malformation. Last September, the Nicaraguan National Assembly rejected a vote to make an exception for therapeutic abortion in its new penal code.

This law was passed because of the church hierarchy’s political influence in the Nicaraguan elections.  It is widely held that Daniel Ortega agreed to back the church’s agenda on sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality in exchange for their support of his campaign.

In 2007, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women took note of the problems caused by anti-SRHR policies in Nicaragua:

“The Committee expresses its concern about the inadequate recognition and protection of the reproductive health and rights of women in the State party, especially among poor, rural, indigenous and Afro-descendent women. It is also concerned about the high rates of teenage pregnancies, inadequate family planning services and the lack of age-appropriate sex-education programmes and information on sexual and reproductive health. The Committee is also concerned about the high maternal mortality rates, particularly the number of deaths resulting from illegal and unsafe abortion. It is further concerned about recent steps taken by the State party to criminalize therapeutic abortion, which may lead more women to seek unsafe, illegal abortions, with consequent risks to their life and health, and to impose severe sanctions on women who have undergone illegal abortions, as well as on health professionals who provide medical care for the management of complications arising from unsafe abortions.”

Nicaragua’s maternal death rates are among the highest in the region; unsafe abortions cause 16% of all maternal deaths.

In 2005, I participated in a study tour with members of Parliament to investigate the role of religion in public policy in Brasil and Peru.  The integration of religious symbols in government and public buildings was very apparent, particularly in Peru.  In interviews with NGOs, religious leaders and a member of Parliament from Peru who was also a political candidate, the team learned about two ways Opus Dei influences politics in Peru.  One, members of Opus Dei go into politics to ensure that policies serve the interests of the Catholic church, and two, members of Opus Dei develop close relationships with political figures, sometimes paying for their campaigns.

Regionally and nationally, lack of access to safe, legal abortion is already a grave public health problem. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 4.000 women die from unsafe abortions every year.

2. The power of the Catholic church

Having failed to convince Catholics to adhere to its narrow dictates on sexual and reproductive health, the hierarchy has invested an inordinate amount of time and energy in lobbying the United Nations, the United States government, European governments and throughout the world – especially Latin America.  Their goal is to pressure political representatives to legislate against the provision of life-saving reproductive health services.

The Vatican expressly prohibits abortion, including any procedure or substance that results in the expulsion of the pre-embryo not yet embedded in the womb.  They teach that all human life must be protected absolutely from the moment of conception and must be afforded the same rights as a person.  They consider abortion absolutely immoral at even the most rudimentary stages of embryonic development and even if a woman’s life is at risk and in cases of rape or incest.

They maintain that this principle should become civil law, and so they continually work to keep abortion illegal, and where it is legal, difficult to obtain. But it would be a mistake to think that their interest is limited to the issue of abortion.  The hierarchy opposes all contraception, including condoms, as well as efforts to achieve gender equality.

We know, of course, of the bilateral treaty that the Vatican negotiated with the government of Slovakia in an effort to merge Catholic teaching and public policy.   The Vatican has intervened in a number of European countries in recent months – in Poland and Spain, to support political candidates, and in the UK in response to the Human Fertility and Embryology bill.  In these instances, the Vatican has taken the problematic stance that its views reflect not only its own opinion, but that of millions of ordinary Catholics who do not, in fact, agree.

It was not long ago that they lobbied this Parliament in a most unsavory manner to discredit the Van Lancker report on sexual and reproductive health issues.  Their tactics included routinely and falsely accusing that the report would promote abortion and impose liberal abortion laws on member states.  After the report was adopted, the Vatican protested in an overly dramatic manner: “It is a dark and sad moment for this great Europe… sick in spirit in certain sectors of the Parliaments, the Europe that should follow like a star the primacy of the human in view of the common good and out of respect for human rights…”

Perhaps less well known are the activities of the Vatican at the United Nations.  As described by church officials, their role at the UN is unique:

“As a full member of the international community, the Holy See finds itself in a very particular situation, because it is spiritual in nature. Its authority—which is religious and not political—extends over one billion persons scattered throughout the world and belonging to the most diverse ethnic groups and geographic regions. Its strength . . . consists in the respect that its words, its teaching, and its policies enjoy in the conscience of the Catholic world—a respect that is widely shared by many people who do not belong to the Church. The real and only realm of the Holy See is the realm of conscience.”

While permanent observers, such as the Holy See, cannot vote in the General Assembly, in most UN conferences they are granted the full status enjoyed by UN member states, including not only a voice, but also a vote. During debate, the Holy See, alone among the world’s religions, can make as many interventions as a member state.

The Vatican’s religious tenets regarding sexuality and reproduction make it next to impossible for the Holy See to participate in policy debates with the same public health concerns that inform state policy. Instead, the church attempts to shape public policy to its religiously based views.

The Vatican fought mightily but failed to prevent consensus on the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) framework, which has since shaped so many development initiatives in Latin America.  The Vatican was the most voluble among a mere handful of states who took this position.

At a subsequent UN meeting to review the ICPD process the Holy See delegation tried again to derail consensus; they opposed numerous proposals, including calls for the provision of emergency contraception to refugees, the promotion of condoms as protection against HIV/AIDS, the inclusion of sexuality education in school curricula, and the training and equipping of health care workers to ensure that where abortion is legal it is safe and accessible.  These are all policies which would benefit the women and families of Latin America.

The Holy See’s attempts to obstruct general agreement on these matters were joined by only a few countries, principally the Sudan, Libya, Morocco, Argentina, and Guatemala. Notably, however, a number of countries with large Catholic populations, including Mexico, Brasil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Peru, spoke out in favour of policies that directly contradicted church positions and Holy See interventions.

3. The importance of political signs from Europe to Latin America

Europe and the EU are for Latin America respected models of democracy.  Many European countries have reached goals that to them seem very distant.  Although we Europeans tend to see what we have not yet achieved or what we are losing, in the eyes of many non-Europeans the EU is a place where there is peace, where people have access to health and education, where a broad array of human rights are recognized by the rule of law, and where all people – women and men – can participate equally in society.

And of course Europe is a crucial partner in development efforts, not least through its financial contributions.  Latin America and the EU have been creating institutional links. Next month there will be the EU-Latin American summit in Lima. And this House has interparliamentary delegations with Chile, Mexico, the Mercosur, the Andean Community and Central America. The EuroLat Parliamentary Assembly has been created. In all these bodies, the EU and this House will push forward an agenda that aims at improving the life conditions of people in both regions. Women’s human rights must be a very important part of this agenda.  Without women’s rights, you cannot have real development.  Without women’s rights, you cannot say that you respect human rights.

This meeting today has consequently a great importance because it is the first meeting that puts sexual and reproductive health and rights in Latin America on the agenda of the Parliament.  It comes after a series of initiatives like study tours to Latin America to learn in the field about the situation, and the letter of concern on the ban of therapeutic abortion sent to the government of Nicaragua, which was co-signed by 35 members of this body.

And I would particularly stress the importance of Europe as a model for Latin America on how religious and government institutions can interact so that all voices are heard and no single voice is privileged.  I would dare to say Europe has a debt to pay to Latin America on the issue of religion.  When Europe colonized the New World, religion was a powerful weapon to subjugate the populations they found.

We have learned here in Europe, at the price of terribly bloody wars, that peace is predicated on pluralism, tolerance and trust.  Public policy must be responsive to human needs, particularly in matters of health and development.  Further, it is of the utmost importance that international standards of human rights – including women’s rights – be respected.  We do not ask than any voice be silenced; rather, we want every voice to be heard without the presumption that the church hierarchy can speak in lieu of other members of the faith.

The European Parliament recognizes that in a pluralistic society, it is the responsibility of policy makers to evaluate the public policy positions put forward by the church in the same way that they would evaluate public policy positions put forward by other NGOs.  But this principle has been difficult for church leaders to accept, and in many countries they disregard it altogether.

I urge everyone to join together in encouraging the governments of Latin America to resist the pressure of the Vatican and to act in the best interest of their fellow citizens by putting the matters of health and human rights first.

Thank you.

Elfriede Harth

For more information about the hearing, see http://www.guengl.eu/showPage.jsp?ID=5902&AREA=1342&HIGH=1 (Spanish language), and http://www.guengl.eu/showPage.jsp?ID=5814&AREA=6&HIGH=1 (English).

[1] CFC – A Woldview 2004, and BBC News: April 1, 2005 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/4243727.stm.