Washington Post Mexico City Bureau Chief
Monday, April 16, 2007 12:00 PM
Two proposals to expand access to abortions in Mexico City's legislature have set off a clash between powerful forces in the nation, considered a regional trendsetter on social issues. On one side are feminists and the left-leaning politicians who have strengthened their control of Mexico City's government. On the other side is the Catholic Church, some leaders of which have threatened to excommunicate Catholic lawmakers who vote to expand access to abortion.
Washington Post Mexico City bureau chief Manuel Roig-Franzia was online Monday, April 16 at noon ET to discuss the heated heated abortion conflict in one of the world's most overwhelmingly Catholic nations.
In Mexico, Powerful Forces Drive a Furious Debate Over Abortion (Post, April 15)
The transcript follows.
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Hi everyone. Abortion is the hot topic in Mexico these days. Much to chat about, so let's go.
Guayaquil, Ecuador: In predominantly Catholic countries population growth rates appear to be among the highest. Do Mexicans expect that penalizing abortion will help curb excessive population growth? Is the Mexican state currently promoting contraception practices in schools and in the media, in spite of curtailment by the Catholic church and pro-life groups?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Good question. Abortion opponents argue that increasing access to abortion will encourage women to use abortion as a means of limiting the size of their families. This is the economic factor in the discussion. In Yucatan, the Mexican state with the broadest access to abortion, the law allows women who already have three children to have legal abortions if they can prove a financial hardship.
Arlington, Va.: Your article mentions that the PRD is pushing to remove the abortion restrictions while the PAN is trying to keep them in place. Does the PRI have an official position on abortion? Also, is there a geographic divide on the abortion issue?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: The PRI has not taken a unified position. The party appears to be somewhat divided. On this issue, as with many others, it plays a key role, though. Because the PRD and the PAN are so diametrically opposed on so much, the PRI is able to straddle the middle and, thus, become a deal-maker or deal-breaker.
Los Angeles: At least it's a vote of the Legislature -- not five out of nine old men who were not elected by anyone -- deciding the issue for the rest of us.
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Am posting this in case anyone else has thoughts on this matter. Remember, of course, that we have two separate abortion fights in Mexico right now. The first in the Mexico City legislative assembly -- Mexico City is a federal district and operates much like a state. This vote is scheduled April 24 and it appears highly likely that there are enough votes to decriminalize abortion in the first trimester because the PRD has a healthy majority of the seats. The second fight is in the national Congress. This one is much less clear. The PRD is pushing a similar decriminalization law there, but it does not have a majority.
washingtonpost.com: Was the push for civil unions in Mexico City more or less controversial, and did the church fight as hard against it?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: There were some protests against the civil union, but then again, it's not tough to get a few thousand people together in Mexico City for a demonstration. Mexico City protests often feel a bit like street fairs. There is plenty of great food and great music, so it's sometimes questionable whether the people who are marching are there for the cause or the show.
Also, at the time of the civil unions vote, the Catholic Church was seriously distracted by a pedophile priest lawsuit. Many analysts here believe that distraction helped the law slip through with much less of a fight than might have been expected.
washingtonpost.com: You also recently reported on the efforts of Lydia Cacho, a Mexican feminist fighting pedophilia and violence against women. Is the Mexican feminist movement a relatively new phenomenon? How did it develop and gain momentum?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Glad you got a chance to read about Lydia Cacho. We got a huge reaction to that piece. There have been Mexican feminists for decades, but only recently have they become much of a force in the country. We're seeing a much more unified, much more assertive and much more effective feminist movement here than ever before. But it still has a long way to go before it becomes a major player in politics.
Colorado Springs CO: It's interesting that the Catholic Church would consider excommunicating Mexican lawmakers supporting a woman's right to an abortion but wouldn't excommunicate someone like Adolph Hitler who was responsible for the mass execution of living, breathing human beings.
Manuel Roig-Franzia: The excommunication threat really got people riled up here. Remember, nine out of ten Mexicans is Catholic. Only Brazil has more Catholics.
The church's involvement in the debate is highly controversial. Mexican law prohibits the church from getting involved in politics, but it's clear that the law is routinely flouted. Mexico's top ranking Catholic, Cardinal Norberto Rivera, has been outspoken about the abortion proposals, as have many local archbishops and priests.
Those comments have angered PRD lawmakers, who have offered up resolutions condemning the church for its involvement in the debate. This isn't the first time this has happened.
If you recall, during last year's ferocious presidential campaign, Rivera tangled with supporters of the PRD candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Here's a piece I wrote at the time.
Also, all this excommunication talk reminds me just a bit of the controversy over John Kerry's abortion stance during his presidential campaign in the U.S. Remember the Catholic leader in St. Louis saying he would refuse to give Kerry communion?
Chapel Hill, N.C.: Speaking of politics, how do you see politicians balancing the heavy influence of the Catholic Church with the concept of the lay state? Are there other areas besides abortion where this conflict is so apparent (e.g., other social services)?
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Good question. The article I posted above from the presidential election will give some insights.
I can remember talking with protesters at the time who were very fired up about keeping the church out of political matters. Mexico has a complex history with the church. During the early 1900s many churches, especially in rural areas, were destroyed by secularists. Priests were killed and driven away.
But the church has remained a hugely influential presence here. Even though many Mexicans hold dear this concept of separation of church and state, others will turn out in droves to hear Rivera or others deliver sermons that have clear political messages.
Manuel Roig-Franzia: Thanks for all your terrific questions. Look forward to chatting again.
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