POPULATION-ARGENTINA: Vatican Honours Menem’s Anti-Abortion Stance

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 14 1999 (IPS) - President Carlos Menem will receive a Vatician award Wednesday for his opposition to abortion which, while illegal in Argentina, is the main cause of maternal deaths in this country.

According to private statistics, 500,000 to 650,000 abortions are performed each year – one for nearly every two births. Other estimates state that one or two women die every day as the result of poorly-performed abortions.

Menem’s award comes at a critical moment in his relations with the Roman Catholic Church as local bishops recently have criticised government economic adjustment policies which, they say, have intensified poverty.

The community organisation Caritas de Argentina maintains that there are 13 million poor and 3.5 million destitute people in this country, and that nearly half of all children are born to families living below the poverty line.

Women’s non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are protesting the award to Menem saying the President has not shown sufficient concern about children.

His government always votes with the Vatican in international forums on issues of reproductive rights, sexual education of children, family planning, assisted fertilisation and abortion, the NGOs pointed out.

This year, Menem’s strategy intensified when his government declared Mar. 25 the “Day of the Unborn Child,” taking a clear stance in the debate on whether conception marked the beginning of a person’s life.

As a result, the Vatican’s permanent observer in the United Nations, Bishop Renato Martino, will award Menem the Pathway for Peace prize, a medal and diploma “in recognition of his exceptional service in defence of human life and the family.”

Mabel Bianco, of the Foundation for Women’s Studies and Research, told IPS that the awarding of this prize, which in the past has been given to King Baudouin of Belgium, and former presidents Corazon Aquino of the Philippines and Lech Walesa of Poland, “is a great irony.”

Bianco says that the Argentinean government “should worry about children already born who, according to the Church itself, are pushed out to live in the streets, hungry, threatened by the violence of poverty, and falling into prostitution.”

In Argentina, thousands of women in the low and middle income groups do not have access to family planning services and run the risk of dying from an abortion performed under unsanitary conditions, Bianco says.

Bianco has participated in preparatory meetings for the June 30 Extraordinary Assembly of the United Nations which will assess compliance with member states’ obligations, extablished during the Population Summit held in Cairo in 1994.

At these mweetins, Argentina’s official delegation voted with Egypt, Guatemala, Libya, Sudan and the Vatican against sexual education and health services for children and adolescents to prevent AIDS, Bianco noted.

Maria Alicia Gutierrez, of the Forum for Reproductive Rights, says she too is upset at the award because “Menem’s diplomacy is an attempt to dissumlate his conflict with the Church about poverty.”

The award “is a colossal blunder,” says Gutierrez, especially for his declaration of the Day of the Unborn Child, “a contradiction in terms, given that if it is unborn, it is not a child.”

Gutierrez believes the government’s posturing is a three- pronged assault on reproductive rights:

It contradicts the right to health because abortion, performed under inadequate conditions, causes health problems and even the death of the mother.

Second is the problem of social inequality, since the majority of victims are poor women who cannot pay the 300 to 2,500 US dollar for abortions in a clandestine market.

Lastly, the official stance goes against women’s excersise of full citizenship in their right to do as they see fit with their bodies, and their intimacy.

In its 10 years in power, the Menem government consistantly has voted with the Vatican at various UN summits (Cairo, Copenhagen, Beijing) and fought unsuccessfully for Argentina’s 1994 constitutional reforms to include anti-abortion measures.

Menem unsuccessfully has tried to win support for his stance from other Latin American presidents.

The president’s advisor on the population issue, Rodolfo Barra, is a former Supreme Court judge and former justice minister who was relieved of his post when a newspaper revealed that, in his youth, Barra had participated in the Nazi movement and had been arrested for vandalising synagogues.

Barra, member of the conservative Catholic organisation Opus Dei, came up with the idea of declaring a Day of the Unborn Child.

Menem, who is of Muslim origin but converted to Christianity when he entered politics, signed on to the project.

Now, Menem’s consistency on this issue, which includes his fight to prevent debate on the claims of women’s groups, will receive the recognition of the Roman Catholic Church.

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