No matter the side of the abortion debate on which you stand, you have to admit that it sounds unlikely. A Catholic organization fighting for the decriminalization of abortion? Throughout the debate, Catholic values have been the cornerstone of the arguments favored by Pro-Life groups, to the extent that a Catholic Pro-Choice movement feels like something of oxymoron. Not the case, Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (Catholic Women For the Right to Choose, CDD) is an organization that has managed to reconcile its faith with the struggle for women’s rights and is demanding that these stop being mutually exclusive concepts in the discourse around abortion.
Based in Córdoba, the organization is one charter of a pan-continental movement spanning all of Latin America. They are a movement of Catholic women who use faith-based arguments and beliefs to counteract the religious fundamentalism which has for so long impeded women’s access to equal rights. “We have an unusual position, as an organization which recognizes women’s role in the Church but also which relates to issues around sexual and reproductive rights, a highly polemic issue within the Catholic Church,” says Marcela Frencia, member of the Advocacy and Training branches of the group. “We offer a Catholic vision of sexual and reproductive rights which also recognizes women’s right to choose.”
They aim to promote reflection and action on issues such as reproductive rights, sexuality, women’s health and citizenship and women’s relationships with religious groups, striving to create a framework of dialogue and advocacy with state departments and fighting to promote sexual education in all levels of the education system. The organization’s position is realistic, recognizing that it is impossible to achieve total consensus on an issue as contentious as abortion. Instead, they call for open and frank dialogue between groups, which instead of aiming to convince, should work to disseminate information and allow people to make decisions freely.
The existence of such a group begs the question as to how they can reconcile their Catholic beliefs with the call to decriminalize and legalize abortion. For CDD, it is a question of being realistic. “Abortion is very much a reality in the lives of women and this has to be recognized,” says Frencia. “Abortion is a philosophical issue, but if we follow Catholic values and teaching, the most important thing we can do is respect the decisions of others. This is not a question of being for or against abortion, but rather about accompanying and supporting the woman who has made this decision.”
“Religion has to support its believers, just like God supports people. If a woman does not want to be a mother, no one should force her to be one. It has to be a loving decision made between her and the world, and she should be the one to take this decision. Of course we advocate for the necessity of sexual education, especially on the use of contraception, but in the case of an unwanted pregnancy, all that we can do is support the woman in question. Women who have had an abortion or need to have one should not have to hide and should have the support of people who are share their faith. Being Catholic and having abortion are not mutually exclusive concepts. Nobody is forcing anyone to have an abortion; what we want is that if a woman decides to have an abortion, she can do so in peace and with our support.”
The group has attracted substantial support from within the Catholic community: “Lots of priests and observant Catholics have joined us. They identify with our position and want to support our struggle,” explains Frencia, though clearly, this attitude has not been welcomed by all, particularly by the fundamentalist groups who use Catholic dogma to reject women’s right to choose. “On the other side are the religious fundamentalist groups, particularly from within the hierarchy of the Church, who have a very closed and rigid attitude toward the abortion debate.
“These groups have adopted an aggressive stance, especially in this crucial political moment. Their aggressive and stubborn behavior towards legislators makes it impossible to legislate, and they fail to understand that Argentina is a secular country. You can hold religious beliefs but in no means can you impose these beliefs on everyone. Unfortunately we have had confrontations with these groups, but we are not intimidated and we will maintain our position.”
It is no accident that the group chose to locate their headquarters outside of the capital. Catholicism is much more powerful in provinces such as Córdoba and the North of Argentina, where people are more observant and faith has a much greater role in local culture and society. Crucially, these are areas where fundamentalist groups are much more active and powerful. “Here in Córdoba, we have powerful religious groups who have influence over people, but also over crucial institutions such as medicine, justice, and even government. This is why we are based in Córdoba, so that we can combat these religious fundamentalists with Catholic arguments.”
As a group, Católicas para el Derecho a Decidir also advocate for women’s rights, recognizing that in the contemporary socio-political context there is still a long road to achieving gender parity. “In Argentina we are still living with the vestiges of Neoliberalism,” says Frencia, “in which the current government’s actions are deepening social inequalities. Within this, the feminization of poverty means that in situations of abject poverty, women suffer more. However, things are improving and, most importantly, women are standing up for their rights. We’ve had enough of men killing us, enough of men deciding for us, enough is enough.”
These cultural changes are also spreading to religion: “Our culture has profoundly religious roots, and often the rigid stance of the Catholic hierarchy means that Catholic women cannot have a life without violence or have control over their own body and sexuality without the burden of guilt and prejudice imposed on them by religious dogma. There is still a long struggle ahead to disarm these cultural preconceptions, but things are changing and now there is no way back. Society’s perception of the issue has changed and abortion in Argentina has come out of the closet, never to return.”
As the debate begins in Congress, CDD await the results with baited breath, especially given the recent allegations of threats toward deputies and their families from fundamentalist religious groups. However they remain hopeful, although acknowledging that if the bill is passed, the struggle is far from over. “Passing the bill is one thing, applying it is another. We have to promote cultural change so that a woman can go to any hospital and know that the attending physician with respect her rights and her choice, fulfilling their role as public officials. We will work to make sure the law is effective, equipping women, doctors and legal officials with the information and support necessary to exercise their rights.” They also hope that a positive result in Argentina will give traction to their compañeras‘ struggles. “If the bill is passed, this will spark a wave of change across Latin America and the world,” says Frencia.
Their enthusiasm and optimism is contagious, even with so much still to play for in these final hours of the debate. While the final result in the Lower House is yet to be seen, not to mention to Herculean task of getting the bill through the Senate, groups such as CDD serve as a reminder that this debate has changed Argentina forever. With everything that has happened, there’s now no going back.
The movements that the debate has inspired have enacted lasting change on Argentine culture and society. Whatever the result, abortion is no longer shrouded in shame and denial; women from all sectors of society are demanding their rights and will be silenced no longer.