“The public is more liberal than the laws”

"I decide!": Pro-choice March in Santiago de Chile, July 2013 (Photo: Ashoka Jegroo / Santiago Times)

In Chile, women having abortions face possible imprisonment. With political scientist Merike Blofield, we talked about abortion restrictions in Latin American countries, liberalizing tendencies, and the importance of social inequality.

unique: Mrs. Blofield, how do you assess the influence of the Catholic Church in public debates about abortion in Chile and Argentina?
Merike Blofield: Until recently, it was overwhelmingly strong in Chile, and very strong in Argentina. However, this has been changing, especially over the past ten years, with scandals rocking the Catholic Church and with the growth of a stronger secular public discourse, which has historically been stronger in Argentina, weaker in Chile.

Are there differences in the role of local clerical representatives and Rome?
In the early 2000s, one could clearly see the effects of the shift in the papacy since John Paul II, and his very conservative stance and focus on issues of sexual and family morality. While the priesthood has overall been anti-abortion, the domestic branches began to focus on these issues while neglecting others, and to lobby and seek to politically influence the discourse and policies on issues of sexual and family morality. I am not sure how much one can yet detect the change in the papacy since Pope Francis.

Would you call either Argentina’s or Chile’s abortion laws an “anomaly” in South America?
I would not call either an anomaly, although Chile is marked by its particularly conservative laws and public discourse. In my 2006 book, which was based on extensive research in both countries, I argued that one of the key factors maintaining such restrictive policies is the high levels of inequality in Chile and Argentina, as well as throughout Latin America.
I compared these countries to Spain, where laws were liberalized following democratization. I argued that there is a strong concentration of both economic and political resources in the Catholic Church and conservative political actors – in Chile for example, Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ have been particularly influential. On the other hand, feminists were much less able to access resources, including funding for campaigns, media or politicians, which made it much harder for them to get their voice heard.

So it is more a question of recourses and their distribution in society?
I argue that in societies with pronounced class divisions, the health effects of illegal abortion are contained among lower class women. Women with wider economic resources can opt for the private exit option of a safer illegal abortion. Reduced cross-class solidarity, which characterizes highly unequal societies, renders it less likely that middle class women – and men for that matter – will rally to support an issue they can solve by private exit option. I contrast this with Spain, where tens of thousands of middle class women – and hundreds of men – openly declared their solidarity and support for the lower class women who suffered and were occasionally brought to trial by declaring they had abortions or aided someone in getting them, so that if these women were to be prosecuted, they would also be. Similar attempts in Chile and Argentina have not gained that kind of momentum to date. In most of South America, however, there has been a slight liberalizing tendency, while in Central America we see some of the most conservative and draconian policies: Women’s movements and civil society are particularly weak there, and the conservative Church has particularly strong links to political elites.

How do societal views on women, sexual violence and restrictive abortion laws connect to each other in the cases of Argentina and Chile?
I think they are linked, and there is much need for more open discussions about these issues, especially about the prevalence of sexual violence and high abortion rates despite illegality. These discussions are in fact increasingly happening.

Can you make statements about the societal opinion on abortion laws in Chile and Argentina? What do campaigns like that of the NGO “Miles Chile”, which gave fake “abortion tutorials” via YouTube, reveal about the political climate in this matter?
The public is more liberal than the laws in both countries. I have not done recent public opinion analysis on abortion, so I don’t dare make a statement on which groups or population strata in particular are for or against abortion. “Miles Chile” is a reflection precisely of the changing political climate on this issue: It was formed in 2010, after Michelle Bachelet’s first presidency, to incite a more open societal debate on abortion. Now, the government in Chile is pursuing a liberalization of abortion laws. At the same time, conservative opponents, who previously always had the upper hand, who were on the attack, who even labeled defensive liberals as ‘baby killers’, are increasingly on the defensive themselves.

Is there any form of “abortion tourism”, with Chilean women traveling abroad in order to abort in legal conditions?
From the data I have seen this is largely a domestic issue – there are Chilean private clinics that service the tremendous demand for a relatively high price. On the other hand, I am sure that elite women also make ‘abortion trips’ to Miami for example.

Which influence do NGOs and human rights activists have on the abortion debates in Chile and Argentina?
They used to be more at the margins of the debate, although in Argentina they have had more traction historically. But now they are stronger, more self-confident, and have more allies among politicians. That said, this statement is more reflective of what is going on in Chile – I cannot speak for Argentina as much, as I have not followed it as closely.

Could one draw parallels in matters of abortion policy between Argentina and Chile on the one side and on the other side Catholic countries in Europe, like Spain, Poland, Hungary, or Ireland – which also happen to be, with exception of the latter, “young” democracies?
Maybe, but again, I am not sure if the key variable is the recency of democratic transitions – just look at the United States! – but rather the domestic constellation of power between the Catholic Church and conservative allies or organizations on the one hand, and feminists and reformists, on the other hand, and their access to economic and political resources.

Thank you very much, Mrs. Blofield.

The interview was conducted by Frank.

Merike Blofield is associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. Born in Finland, she has lived in Canada, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and the United States. Among her publications are The Politics of Moral Sin: Abortion and Divorce in Spain, Chile and Argentina (2006), and the edited volume The Great Gap: Inequality and the Politics of Redistribution in Latin America (2011).


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