Around the world, the issues of religion, abortion, and the state are fiercely debated. In this blog post, originally appearing in the LSE Social Policy Blog, Ha Chau Ngo writes about the passage of Argentina’s pro-choice abortion law and what this means for the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state.
On December 20th 2020, Argentina’s Congress decided to legalise abortions up to the 14th week of pregnancy, a milestone for a government with a historically strong affiliation with the Church and for a region with some of the most prohibitive abortion laws in the world. On the one hand, this success for women’s rights comes after a long battle of a pro-choice grassroots feminist movement that evidenced the contestation between some democratic and religious values. On the other hand, its triumph poses the question whether a complete separation of church and state is truly necessary to advance women’s rights, as thousands of Argentineans decided to formally leave the Catholic Church and demand their Church to “keep (the) rosaries out of (women’s) ovaries.” However, this article argues that states with a history of strong affiliation between religion and government, such as Argentina, should neither turn against nor dominate but rather should engage with the Church in creating and implementing policies that might conflict with religious values.
Historically, religion has played a significant role in Argentinian politics and society. The Church enjoys economic advantages, influences cultural norms and practice, and intervenes in policy and decision making, including the issue of female reproductive rights. For instance, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015) decreased funding for the reproductive/sexual health programs and restricted the distribution of certain types of contraceptives because of Catholic religious values. Until today, the Church remains firm in its opposition to the new abortion law.
Nevertheless, the power of the Church in Argentina has declined recently due to social demand to diversify and democratise, illustrated by numerous active grassroots movements across economic, political, and social realms. With more religious diversity and tolerance towards non-Catholic groups, Argentinian society is no longer “captive of the Catholic monopoly”. Since Constitutional reform in 1994, Presidents and Vice Presidents of Argentina no longer have to be Catholic. In fact, despite the Catholic Church’s views on homosexuality, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalise gay marriage in 2010. In addition, some Catholic organizations, such as Catholics for the Right to Decide, openly support reproductive rights and gender equality. The recent legalisation of abortion is another concrete proof of the Church’s waning influence in Argentinian politics and society.
An absolute separation of Church and state might thus not be necessary. Maintaining democratic values does not require a “trade-off” with religious values and practice. First, some governments, including Argentina, have historically benefitted from Church’s fundamental “juridical, financial, cultural, and symbolic support” and in turn protected the Church’s power to practice by “specific legislation.” In addition, religious ideologies or conventional beliefs are beneficial to both politicians’ legitimacy and religious leaders’ “relevance and survival.” Therefore, governments with prominent Church influence, similar to Argentina, can maintain their “neutrality” or “institutionally friendly relationship with religion” while appropriately and selectively implementing “co-optation” of religious ideas into policies. Alternatively, transparent and flexible negotiations are inevitably essential.
By adopting transparency and flexibility in policy-making, states can engage with the Church without compromising progress and democratic values. Rationalising their decisions to the public, politicians and policy-makers need to be clear on whether religious values constitute a deciding factor in their votes. In the case of Argentina, politicians acknowledge the influence of Catholic Church’s view in their legislative decisions. However, the Church’s power does not “have the same political weight as in other countries, such as Brazil where they can count on a parliamentary bloc.”
In opposition to the abortion bill, the Church’s tactic mainly included public pressure and lobbying, ranging from the Pope’s personal acknowledgement of one of the largest pro-choice networks in the world or lobbying by bishops which resulted in the defeat of the abortion bill in 2018. Nevertheless, Congress’s decision to pass the bill on abortion up to 14th week demonstrates that citizens’ well-being trumps traditional religious values, a success largely accredited Ni Una Menos, a grassroots feminist movement founded in 2015. Hence, governments similar to Argentina can acknowledge the Church’s opinions while arguing that the safety and well-being of women would promote social stability without compromising their traditional role in family and society.
In short, although Catholicism has a significant position in Argentina’s government and society, a disruption between the Church and society is not necessary. The Church’s power and involvement in the state’s policies on women’s rights have already changed dramatically over the past years. Instead, the state needs to guarantee transparency during policymaking process and flexibly initiate negotiations with the Church on policies that are in conflict with religious values. Lessons from female reproductive laws in Argentina hold a promise of further expansion of equivalent legislation in other Latin American countries.
Note: This article was originally published by the LSE Social Policy Blog
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.