Abortion emerges as contentious issue in Catholic countries

Abortion has become a contentious political issue in the Latin American countries of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, even though more as a subject of debate than a change in policy. Writing on the news site Vox (August 9), Amy Erica Smith argues that the new attention to abortion is less a sign of secularization in these societies than it is a reflection of the growth of social movements and religious competition. In recent months, Argentina narrowly defeated a bill that would have legalized abortion up to 14 weeks, while Chile’s legislature legalized abortion in limited cases and Brazil has held hearings on the possibility of decriminalizing the practice. While the Catholic country of Ireland may have recently liberalized its abortion policy under a new wave of secularization, this is not the case with these Latin American nations, where the proportion of people who say that “religion is very important” to them has gone up in the past decade in the AmericasBarometer surveys in Brazil and Argentina. Trust in the Catholic Church has also risen in Argentina.

Smith writes that the emergence of waves of social movements in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile has been facilitated by new communication technologies. “The abortion debate, then, might be a sign not of the decline of religious conservatism, but of the increasing sophistication of leftist movements.” She also ties the new debate to the sensitivity of clergy to religious competition and the threat of membership loss, which she has found to be characteristic of Brazilian clergy. “When reminded (i.e., primed) that they face these challenges, … they give lower priority to topics such as ‘God’s wrath’ and the need for chastity, apparently in an attempt to keep the faithful in the pews.” Smith concludes that “If some Catholic clergy deliberately deemphasize abortion, there is no need for citizens to reject church teachings. And indeed, observers have noted the church’s reticence to speak out in the abortion debate in both Argentina and Ireland.”