Church and State in Mexico: A Political Party Wavers on Women’s Rights

Macho, blind, dishonest, kidnapped by aliens. In recent years, detractors have spat plenty of venomous words at Beatriz Paredes, former national director of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

“I abort you, Beatriz,” one editor even wrote in his takedown.

A known feminist, Paredes stood by while her PRI colleagues in various states approved constitutional reforms declaring life as the moment of conception and penalizing the practice of abortion, leading to more investigations and arrests of women. While abortion was illegal before, it was practiced clandestinely without prosecution in most places. Since 2008, 17 states have passed similar measures—most recently in Baja and San Luis Potosi just last month.

The wave of legislation began in reaction to a groundbreaking 2007 Mexico City law allowing abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. But it swelled as PRI leaders, seeking to gain conservative support in the 2009 elections, began forming alliances with local church leaders.

Undoubtedly, Mexican politics has become more religiously conservative since the National Action Party (PAN) claimed the presidency in 2000 and again in 2006. The church helped define the PAN. But the PRI has historically proclaimed itself secular, in line with Mexico’s constitutional legacy of church-state separation.

Going forward, feminist leaders are reevaluating what the PRI’s betrayal means for the future of reproductive rights in Mexico. The country’s next presidential election will take place in July 2012. By nearly all predictions, political analysts expect that the PRI will return to Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House.

Half a decade ago, feminists probably would have hailed that news as the restoration of more secular governing; but now everything’s up in the air. Has the PRI become just another politically conservative, church aligned-party? Or can it return to its legacy of secularism?

Religious Power Games During the PAN’s Reign

A fire to win defines the PRI ethos. The party held Mexico’s executive office for 71 years until losing the presidency in 2000.

Many past PRI presidents viewed the Catholic Church as a political threat and pushed to marginalize it, whereas PAN presidents have openly embraced their Catholic identity—and of course, utilized it politically.

When Church leaders wanted to crack down on abortion, they knew they could count on the PAN—and that provided them political leverage to negotiate with the PRI. The grand majority of Mexicans, nearly 84 percent, are Catholic, though that number has been gradually dwindling from 99.5 percent in 1900.

It’s hard to know exactly how agreements are cut with Church leaders, but there’s a basic script, says Daptnhe Cuevas Ortiz, director of the Consortium for Parliamentary Dialogue and Equity, a Mexican women’s rights lobbying group.

Local Church leaders cozy up to the governor or congressional leaders and say: “look, it’s very important that you commit to this because the Church wants it, and you know about the voting—and really they’re threatening, or what you deduce, is that they have the possibility to make from mass a call to stop voting for whatever party,” says Cuevas Ortiz.

If the PRI indeed cut some deals, they served the party well. In the midst of Mexico’s anti-abortion drive in 2009, six states—five of which now possess abortion-related constitutional reforms—held governor elections. PRI politicians won five posts, pushing out the PAN in three states.

Beyond backroom dealings, Mexican politicians know which public maneuvers will draw the Church’s good graces.

Before his election, then PAN candidate Vicente Fox waved banners with the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s icon of the Virgin Mary, and later on, his daughter assisted in planning a public health campaign, which many believed was promoting abstinence. (It was eventually cancelled after sexual educators stirred up a ruckus).

But you really can’t beat visiting the Vatican when it comes to proving your allegiance to Catholicism. Current PAN President Felipe Calderón attended Pope John Paul II’s beatification this spring. And the PRI’s probable 2012 presidential candidate has also publicly traveled to the Vatican recently.

PRI party leaders will select their presidential candidate next February. But most bets are already on Enrique Peña Nieto, the young and dapper outgoing governor of Mexico State, which surrounds the capital. In 2009, Peña Nieto led a delegation that journeyed to the Vatican to present the Pope with gifts from Mexico state.

When he spoke about his upcoming plans to marry, Pope Benedict XVI blessed the governor and his fiancée, Angélica Rivera, a Mexican soap opera star, who had come along for the trip. (Peña Nieto’s first wife died from complications related to an epileptic episode in 2007.)

That visit’s telling, says Pedro Salazar Ugarte, a legal scholar with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Although he can’t back it up with evidence, Salazar Ugarte has an inkling that Peña Nieto has already allied himself with the Church.

Besides the Vatican visit, Salazar Ugarte says there are other signs: Catholic leaders have attended some of Peña Nieto’s most important speeches, birthday celebrations, and many paid a lot of attention to his wedding, he says.

If this apparent bond persisted, it would be a “big loss for the PAN,” says Salazar Ugarte. “Their historic ally, in this case, would also be prepared to play with the PRI,” he says.

Yet, the PRI’s crystal ball is often murky.

“The PRI, politically speaking, before everything else, has been throughout its entire story a pragmatic political organization,” says Salazar Ugarte.

The PRI’s 1970s Sexual Revolution

Could the PRI’s opportunistic style shift in favor of women’s rights? The move wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Under PRI President Luis Echeverría’s leadership, the government unabashedly and successfully introduced the country to contraception in the 1970s. Echeverría believed that, without family planning, Mexico’s birth rate would cripple its economic growth and result in heavy unemployment in coming years.

With slogans like “paternidad responsible” (responsible parenthood) and “la familia pequeña vive mejor” (small families live better), the government always framed its family planning programs in anti-poverty terms, despite their socially progressive nature.

Regardless, they caused an immediate revolution and contraception use escalated rapidly. These days, Mexican women on average have 2.1 children, down from seven in 1974.

The Church, not surprisingly, tried to convince Mexicans of contraception’s moral hazards, though in many cases, Church leaders clearly realized they were on the losing side of the battle.

“Undoubtedly some clergy turned a blind eye to such transgressions to ward off further dwindling church attendance and membership,” writes Matthew Gutmann, an anthropologist at Brown University.

With respect to women’s reproductive rights, other PRI politicians have taken progressive actions more recently.

During December 1990, Patrocinio González Garrido, then governor of Chiapas, quickly pushed through a law allowing abortions for economic and family planning reasons, with various stipulations. After an uproar from Catholic leaders, González Garrido suspended the law on New Year’s Eve, and it never became permanent.

Even more crucially, a proposal from PRI politician Armando Tonatiuh González kicked off the battle that produced Mexico City’s historic 2007 abortion law. Standing in Mexico City’s central square, Tonatiuh González promoted the policy by handing out condoms and informational brochures.

Of course, even before the country’s anti-abortion onslaught, the PRI sided with religious forces on occasion. In the 1990s, PRI President Carlos Salinas de Gortari supported constitutional reforms overturning stringent state control of churches, such as not allowing churches a legal status and officially preventing religious institutions from teaching in private schools. The new rules eradicated both those policies and broadened many other freedoms. Salinas de Gortari also reestablished state relations with the Vatican.

Feminists’ Reasons for Hope

The formation of PRI/Church alliances is largely viewed as a political maneuver, not an ideological transformation. Does that mean the new bonds are tenuous? Mexican liberals sure hope that’s the case, and despite the PRI’s gubernatorial gains in 2009, feminists still believe support for abortion is inflated.

They argue that the PRI made the wrong bet when it picked the Catholic hierarchy over women’s rights. In late 2009, El País, a Spanish newspaper, published results from a Mexican survey stating that 46 percent of participants were less likely to vote for the PRI since the wave of anti-abortion reforms and that 48 percent agreed with the criticism against PRI leader Beatriz Paredes. A whopping nearly 80 percent didn’t believe that PRI members were supporting anti-abortion legislation for ideological or ethical reasons.

Cuevas Ortiz, the feminist lobbyist, believes the PRI has damaged its reputation among women—and that the party might be willing to backtrack.

The new PRI president, Humberto Moreira, doesn’t reflect some of his brethren’s anti-abortion sentiment: he believes in the woman’s right to choose. “It’s like if women made the decision about whether we could or couldn’t have vasectomies,” he said during an event. Nevertheless, just like Paredes, he didn’t seem eager to force his opinion on others.

As for the possible future president, Peña Nieto, he recently gave an interview about his position on sexual rights. He blandly spoke about adhering to laws on the books and called abortion “a right already acquired by society.” In all, the conversation was a snoozer.

But not to Cuevas Ortiz. Sure, she wanted “a clear announcement” showing impassioned conviction toward respecting women’s rights. But on the whole, Peña Nieto’s response portrayed a secular attitude, one not inclined to Christian activism on abortion, she believes.

When it comes to the PRI, everything’s a guessing game, of course. But Cuevas Ortiz is optimistic now.

“If you know how to read things politically, it’s the best news,” she says.