NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER
13 October 89
By Demetria Martinez (Special to the NCR)
"ABORTION IN LATIN AMERICA IS A MATTER OF DESPERATION"
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - For North Americans, the abortion debate is one of rights: the fetus' right to be born versus the mother's right to control her body. But for Latin American women, debating rights is a luxury that has little to do with the brutal reality of becoming pregnant and knowing it will be impossible to feed yet another child, said Sylvia Marcos.
A Mexican psychotherapist who has taught at Harvard University, Marcos works with women in squatters' camps throughout Mexico. She spoke recently in Albuquerque on behalf of Catholics for a Free Choice. Earlier this year, the organization published a collection of essays in Spanish by Marcos and other Latin American women called, Mujeres y Iglesia, Sexualidad y Aborto en America Latina.
"If you want to end abortion in Latin America, you will have to change the whole economic system," said Marcos in an interview. Unfortunately, Marcos said, abortion foes have failed to come up with answers to the poverty that drives Latin American women to have what she estimates are 12 million illegal abortions a year.
Women in Latin America, most of them Catholic, are expected to marry young and have many children. Most women choose abortion only after having many children and deciding it would be impossible to feed another, Marcos said. The combination of Catholicism and culture - extolling the virtues of large families - and women's utter lack of means to provide is devastating psycho- logically and physically, she said. Furthermore, about half of all Latin American women are raising children alone. "It's so unjust," said Marcos.
The 12 million abortions reflect desperation - not an antilife orientation, she said. "When you're hungry, you do not debate the ethics of when life begins," said Marcos. "If we had enough to eat, then we could care."
Women who have abortions continue to call themselves Catholic but often quit going to communion. "Not only do they have a hard time recovering physically from illegal abortions, but they are denied spiritual enjoyment," Marcos said.
Trapped in desperate situations, women ignore church teachings about abortion - particularly if they are Indians who still identify strongly with traditions that uphold different ideas about when life begins. As an example, Marcos said some Mayan tribes believe that from the time before birth until the age of six, the soul and body are still in the process of deciding whether to live together - a belief that would help Indians explain high infant mortality rates.
Both pro-choice and pro-life forces in North America, said Marcos, have tended to look at the abortion issue from a North American perspective and have not formed a broader analysis that takes into account the concrete realities of poor women - the majority in Latin America. "It's very American to start with an abstract moral principle," she said.