It’s 5:00 p.m. and the cathedral bells toll to mark the hour. La Plaza de Mayo, the square directly in front of the president’s office, is full of impassioned women fighting for the right to abortion. Although the abortion debate is not new to residents of the United States, it spins a markedly different tale in this politically charged square of Argentina. Here, as with any Latin American country, Catholicism remains deeply ingrained in society. In fact, until 1994, Argentinians did not possess the freedom of religion that United States citizens have held since 1789. Even today, almost 20 years later, the culture of Argentina promotes the Catholic faith through its holidays, customs, and abundance of Catholic churches.
This permeation of religion in everyday life is explicitly clear in the modern fight for abortion rights and has forced anti-abortion supporters to change their tune. For years, the Christian population argued against abortion using only the Bible as support. This caused abortion supporters to feel ostracized or penalized for their lack of religion, or adherence to a different religion. As such, due to the clear religious link against abortion, the debate in Argentina has changed to pro-life versus pro-choice, much like in the U.S. This prevents pro-abortion rights supporters from generalizing all anti-abortion rights supporters as radical Catholics or Christians, in general. The Catholic presence is evident within primary school instruction, as well.
At my program base in Buenos Aires, the university offers a Women’s and Gender Studies class. In the class, students watched part of a movie entitled The Silent Scream. The movie follows the life of a woman who experiences an unplanned pregnancy. At eleven weeks, past the time constraints of a safe abortion, a doctor performs an abortion for the young woman. When the fetus is removed, the doctor swears that he sees its mouth move in a silent scream. This explicit scene effectively shows young teenagers the consequences of premarital sex and portrays the fetus as a living baby that can experience emotions. In this way, the video advertises an obvious pro-life message. The teacher went on to explain that sexual education in Argentinian schools is blatantly pro-life, due to the country’s Catholic roots. In some schools, teachers go so far as to take children on field trips to see abortion instruments in the hospital. By promoting this pro-life ideology so explicitly, children learn to follow Catholic reproductive beliefs at a young age.
This distinct lack of sexual education has evident consequences today, as secularism becomes more prominent in the younger generation. Now more than ever, Argentinians are unmarried or divorced with at least one child. This betrays Catholic tradition by showing the prevalence of premarital sex and divorce after marriage, both of which are illegal in the Catholic faith. My host mom, for example, is divorced with a child that was conceived a few years after her divorce was finalized. In this way, although the Catholic tradition is the clear foundation for much of Argentinian society, secularism has found a way to penetrate what was once a fortress of Catholicism.