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Argentine Church spars with abortion campaigners ahead of debate

A crime or a right? That’s the question posed by the influential Catholic Church three weeks out from a Senate vote on whether to adopt a bill that would decriminalize abortion in Argentina.

On the other side of the debate, pro-choice campaigners like 67-year-old Elsa Schvartzman say this is a question of social justice and protecting women’s rights.

A controversial bill that would decriminalize abortion in the first 14 weeks and in cases where the infant would not survive after birth was passed by the lower house Chamber of Deputies last month, before the upper house Senate began debating it two weeks ago.

A final debate on the matter in the staunchly catholic homeland of Pope Francis will be held on August 8.

But for Alberto Bochatey, the bishop of La Plata, to even debate the subject is unacceptable.

“Is it a crime or is it a right? Pro-abortion groups say it’s a right, but many of us say that taking a human life is a crime,” the 62-year-old told AFP.

“You cannot debate whether or not it’s legal to commit a crime, that wouldn’t be a democratic debate.”

Schvartzman, a founding member of the campaign to legalize abortion in Argentina, says it’s a question not just of rights but also of health.

“It’s about human rights, social justice and public health,” the sociologist and mother of three told AFP.

“We’re talking about avoidable deaths of women, the public health of women, also kids and kids that are left without their mother.

“We’re talking about the right to live in dignity, with autonomy, to be able to choose freely.

“It’s a social justice case because an abortion isn’t the same for someone who can afford it and one who can’t.”

Bochatey, though, points to the Bible to elaborate his position but adds that the sanction for abortion should not be penal detention.

– ‘Thou shalt not kill’ –

“We have the fifth commandment that says: ‘thou shalt not kill.’ The Church has looked after the poorest, weakest, most vulnerable and unborn babies.

“You cannot make a law to justify the elimination of human life. In the 21st century we cannot ignore embryology and genetics studies. There is life before birth.

“There has almost never been a woman imprisoned over an abortion.

“What we’re proposing is that the penalty is not incarceration or a great punishment,” said the graduate in bioethics and moral theology.

The subject sparked intense debate in Congress’s lower house, with entire days taken over by discussions involving specialists and activists, before the bill was passed by 129 votes to 125.

Liberal president Mauricio Macri pushed through the bill even though he is “in favor of life”.

In schools and universities, as well as workplaces and in the streets, everyone seems to be talking about the upcoming debate to see whether Argentina will join Uruguay and Cuba in becoming the only countries in Latin America to fully legalize abortion.

In most countries in the region it is permitted only in cases of rape, a threat to the life of the mother or if the fetus is disabled.

– ‘Cultural exchange’ –

Only in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua — all in Central America — does abortion remain totally banned.

Schvartzman believes that, at the very least, opening this debate has been hugely influential in broadening people’s horizons.

“One of the aims of the campaign was to work on a cultural exchange,” she said.

“We’ve managed to get people talking about abortion, to discuss it, it’s in the streets, it’s no longer a taboo, it’s no longer stigmatized. Right now, it’s unavoidable.”

Since the debates began, pro-life campaigners have identified themselves with a green scarf, those anti-abortion with a light blue neckerchief.

But the campaigns haven’t been entirely peaceful, with claims of assaults, intimidation and threats.

“There have been people physically assaulted, supporters’ premises vandalized, in others they’ve written on the pavement or on the shop front,” said Schvartzman.

“And there are serious issues on social media.”

Bochatey, though, insisted that “in the institutional Church, not one bishop has threatened anyone, even less so with excommunication.

“There are civil groups of every color. If anyone’s painted on churches or the cathedral, it’s the pro-abortion groups.”

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