ROME—Ever since center-right politician Mauricio Macri was chosen by Argentines to lead the country in 2015, many sets of eyes, both at home and abroad, automatically turned to the world’s most famous Argentinian, Pope Francis, and engaged in a game of, “Guess what their relationship is like?”
In mid-February, Macri opened the floodgates for a national discussion of what Francis previously described as the basis of one of just two public spats the two men had when the president was the mayor of Buenos Aires and the pope the archbishop: Abortion.
On Tuesday, two proposals were presented in the lower house of Argentina’s congress. One, in favor of “safe and free abortion,” would allow for pregnancies to be terminated in public hospitals during the first 14 weeks. The other calls for “integral protection of the human rights of pregnant women and girls and boys to be born,” offering financial support to women who become pregnant as a result of sexual abuse and choose to carry the child to term, lasting up to the 18th birthday of the child.
Should the pope’s native country actually move to legalize abortion, observers might take the result as another sign of weakness, at a time when the pontiff is already under fire in Latin America and elsewhere for his handling of the Church’s clerical sexual abuse scandals.
Since 1994, Argentina’s constitution has protected the right to life, defining conception as the beginning of life. The constitutional change resulted from the ratification of two international treaties: The 1984 American Convention on Human Rights, which states that the right to life “shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception,” and the 1990 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines “every human being below the age of eighteen” as a child. Upon adopting the charter, Argentina specified that a child means “every human being since the moment of conception until the age of eighteen.”
Every president since Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983, until now, openly opposed abortion. Until Tuesday, no bill to legalize abortion had been presented with real expectations of it even reaching the floor during the past 12 years.
Macri has openly stated that he’s against abortion, because he’s “in favor of life.” Back in 2016, he went so far as to pray for the right to life in public at the closing ceremony of Argentina’s Eucharistic Congress. On that occasion, he read a re-worded prayer penned by the national conference of bishops in 2001.
Macri, Bergoglio, and their Cold War
Though it’d be naïve to argue that Francis embraces Macri’s neo-liberal tendencies, it would also be deeply misleading to say that the two are sworn enemies. Macri is widely perceived as the first non-Peronist president with real chances of finishing his term, and perhaps even be re-elected. The pope is not expected to help in the campaign, though if he feared that Argentina’s democracy was at risk, he’d likely be the first to take action, as many observers believe he did with former left-wing President Christina Kirchner, who considered the then-cardinal as the head of the opposition.
Yet, that’s not to say that Francis and Macri haven’t clashed.
On Oct. 4, 2012, Macri announced that the city of Buenos Aires would witness its first legal abortion. On his watch, the city adopted Resolution 1.252 of Argentina’s Supreme Court eliminating punishments for abortion, doing so before the nation complied.
Bergoglio called Macri’s decision “regrettable.” Macri would eventually veto the resolution after initially opting not to appeal it, but for Bergoglio, the damage was already done.
As a footnote, the second public disagreement the two had was over what Argentines have dubbed “equal marriage.” In 2009, Macri decided not to appeal a court ruling that legalized gay marriage in Buenos Aires, a year before the national government did so.
At the time, the two held a 20-minute meeting in an attempt to build bridges, but that didn’t work out either. In the end, the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires released a statement criticizing Macri for having “seriously failed his duty as a ruler and custodian of the law.”
Argentina’s ongoing debate over abortion
Despite his personal belief and his multiple public pronouncements against abortion, in mid-February Macri decided to leave the road clear for a debate in Argentina’s Congress. Currently the Chamber of Deputies is divided, and it’s unclear how many would vote in favor or against abortion, though even those supporting abortion rights have publicly acknowledged they have low expectations over the bill reaching Congress.
The issue continues to be extremely divisive among Argentines, even within party lines, explaining why the pro-abortion bill proposed carried some 70 signatures from members of every party, including Macri’s Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”) party.
Most estimates indicate that the bill would not have enough votes to be adopted.
For this reason, some believe the government allowed the debate only as a “smoke screen” to distract public opinion from other issues. Father Guillermo Marcó, former spokesman of Bergoglio, said in a radio interview that with the abortion debate, issues such as a long over-due “salary update, because people need to eat,” are being ignored.
Marcó also said that by opening the debate, the government was “bombing its own electoral base, which is, in great part, Catholic.”
Asked about Francis’s view, the priest said that he couldn’t say if opening the debate did or didn’t anger his former boss, but said the issue is not a “religious matter to discuss with the Church. Every argument has to be built from the side of science. Today it’s known that the entire genetic code is present” since the moment an egg is fertilized.
“No one doubts that there is a unique and unrepeatable being,” Marcó said.
According to the country’s penal code, abortion is only legal when the life of the mother is at risk, in the case of rape or when the pregnant woman has intellectual deficiencies. Those campaigning in favor of abortion rights claim that some 500,000 pregnancies are terminated each year and some 60,000 women are hospitalized as a result of ill-performed procedures, making it a national health care concern.
However, the opposition points out that in 2016, there were only 43 “maternal deaths due to abortion,” according to the National Health Ministry, a total which also includes deaths due to a miscarriage.
Among Macri’s closest allies, those who also enjoy strong ties to the pontiff have openly stated they’re against abortion. For instance, Vice President Gabriela Michetti published an opinion piece on March 8, International Women’s Day.
“These days there’s much being said about women who are victims of extreme situations, and who must face pregnancies in conditions of extreme difficulty,” she wrote. Yet that suffering, she argued, “cannot be extinguished with answers that cause a greater suffering to women. As a society, we must debate how we can really help them.”
On the other side, Victoria Donda, a member of Argentina’s lower chamber and a member of the opposition, wrote an editorial in the same online paper, Infobae, saying that those promoting the law are not calling on women to have an abortion.
“The motto of the campaign actually says: ‘Sexual education to choose, contraceptives to not abort, and legal abortion not to die’,” Donda wrote.
The bishops’ conference released a statement on Feb. 23 saying every human life is a gift, even when it wasn’t conceived “as a fruit of an act of love,” and even if it’s the consequence of an act of “abuse or violence against a woman.”
In these situations, the bishops wrote, the voice of the woman who “didn’t choose to be a mother, who’s usually alone and in a majority of cases in a situation of poverty,” must be heard, but so must that of the vulnerable “human life conceived that cannot defend itself.”
“The human and ethical question is: Do we have to choose one life and eliminate the other?” they asked.
The path to take under these circumstances, the bishops write, is educating citizens in the “free and responsible decision of conceiving a human life,” because “everyone has the need and the right to be welcomed.”
They also urge the recognition of human dignity, equal dignity between women and men, and policies to fight gender violence that’s on the rise in the country, where a woman is killed by her male partner or ex-partner every 30 hours.
However, the bishops didn’t oppose the idea of allowing a debate to happen, saying only that it must be held in a spirit of “honest and profound dialogue that can respond to this drama, listening to the different voices and the legitimate concerns that those who don’t know how to act have.”
“Along with every man and woman who discover life as a gift, Christians want to lend our voices, not to impose a religious conception, but from reasonable and human convictions,” the prelates argued.