Keeping My Religion

Amanda Scioscia

I stood face to face with Marta Alanis, regional coordinator of Catholics for
A Free Choice in Latin America, we looked at each other with scrutiny.

"I thought
you’d be older," she said.

"I thought
you’d be more Catholic," I replied.

I was baptized
Catholic out of respect for cultural tradition, though it is a religion I have
never been able to integrate into my reality. It never entered my head that
one could maintain a Catholic faith alongside a feminist ideology. Needless to
say, I was curious to meet these Catholic women who hold such progressive
views on reproduction and sexuality.

Catholics For A
Free Choice (CFFC) began in 1973 as a North American movement committed to
challenging the church’s hard-line stance against contraception, family
planning, and abortion. They affirm the moral capacity of women to make their
own decisions, and they maintain that the bishops do not represent all
Catholic people when it comes to reproductive issues. Most recently, the group
began working to change the status of the Catholic Church at the United

Their concern
over the Vatican’s growing role in global politics led the group to
international expansion. CFFC began working in Latin America in 1986, with the
formation of Catolicas por el Derecho a Decidir (CDD). Latin America seemed
prime breeding ground for such a movement, considering the region is over 90
percent Catholic. In spite of this, the World Health Organization (WHO)
reports that Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest documented
incidence of unsafe abortions in the developing world. An estimated four to
six million abortions are practiced yearly in the region.

Marta Alanis
became regional coordinator of the movement three years ago. Her interest in
feminist issues grew out of her leftist political activity. She explains that
when she was younger, there was no feminist movement. There was only a social
justice movement dedicated to securing human rights and fighting an oppressive
military dictatorship. Alanis says this movement was concerned with politics
and class struggles. It wasn’t until five years ago that she came to terms
with other factors involved in the fight for equality. After 30 years of
dedication to macro-political issues, Alanis is just now getting to the gender


Equal Access
to God

in the CDD office, Marta explains why this movement is necessary. "The
pressure of the Catholic Church on the government is immense," she says.
"This government is ideologically, fundamentally against women’s rights
and in-line with the Vatican. It’s on the level of stupidity that they
don’t know what’s happening in Argentine society."

happening is that unsafe abortion is the leading cause of maternal death in
Argentina. According to CDD literature, the federal government estimates
365,000 illegal abortions are performed annually in Argentina. The World
Health Organization states that 70,000 women die every year from unsafe
abortions. Marta says access to contraception and sex education is extremely
limited, exacerbating the problem of unwanted pregnancies. The Sexual and
Reproductive Health Program in Cordoba reports that 63 percent of pregnancies
are unplanned.

If a woman
decides she wants to abort an unplanned pregnancy, she has to do so illegally
unless she is mentally impaired and can prove she is a survivor of rape or
incest. Argentina will allow abortion in these instances, and occasionally to
save the life of the mother.

It is one of
the more conservative countries when it comes to reproductive freedoms,
paralleled only by the Islamic nations. This became obvious at July’s UN
Conference on Population and Development (ICPD+5). The purpose of the
conference was to evaluate progress in population and development programs
with respect to gender equity and the idea that sexual and reproductive health
are essential human rights. During his speech to the General Assembly,
Argentine ambassador Aldo Omar Carreras declared: "Too much time is being
spent on the narrow theme of reproductive health. It is overemphasized to the
detriment of other elements…social policies must recognize family rights.
Parents must decide the education of their children…human life must be
respected from conception."

As Carreras
dismounted the platform, he literally walked into the arms of the Holy See’s
representative and embraced him.

Unlike other
religions, which are considered non-governmental organizations, the Roman
Catholic Church has held Permanent Observer Status at the UN for the past 35
years. This is made possible via the Holy See—Vatican City’s juridical
entity. Permanent Observers at the UN, including Switzerland and the Holy See,
cannot vote in the General Assembly. However, they have full access to
meetings and documents, and may participate in debates. They take part in UN
conferences and are typically granted the full status of UN member states. CDD
believes this status enables the Holy See to exercise equal power as member
states, including power to block consensus.

At the ICPD+5
conference, a side meeting was held to discuss controversial wording in the
consensus regarding access to safe abortions. A representative from the Holy
See took the floor as second speaker and declared that abortion is a tragedy.
He said each and every abortion represents a failure and every attempt should
be made to eliminate it.

failure—perhaps, but whose? The speaker from the United Kingdom pointed out
that she has little sympathy for countries that complain about high abortion
rates, yet refuse to provide their people with access to contraception and sex

Serra Sippel of
CFFC in Washington, DC questions the equality of the Holy See’s status.
"Whom do they speak for?" she asks. "Is teen pregnancy a problem in
Vatican City?"

With a
residency of less than 1,000 mostly male clergy living in the smallest state
in the world, it is likely that teen pregnancy is not a major problem in
Vatican City. It is, however a problem in Argentina. CDD literature reports
that 700,000 births in the last few years occurred to Argentine mothers
between the ages of 15 and 19 years old, 73 percent of which were unplanned.

Carreras says the Vatican does not affect Argentine policy decisions. He says
Argentina and the Vatican just happen to agree on a few issues. For instance,
all those adolescent mothers and fathers should have received their sexual
education from their parents.

Alanis agrees
that sex education should ideally come from the home, but how is this possible
when the parents are sexually ignorant? She says there are no adult sex
education programs in Argentina. Marta questions the idea that a mother of
seven, who doesn’t know what a uterus is, can be capable of teaching her
daughter about where babies come from.

Marta Alanis
questions a lot of things. When she was 10, she remembers her mother fretting
about not having enough money to buy bread. She asked, "Why is money
necessary to buy food?" By age 19, she was married, pregnant with her oldest
son, Leandro, and was developing the communist ideals she expressed at age 10

husband, Luis, tells me he has lived all but 16 years of his life under a
dictator. "One could walk out of school and be stopped by the police," he
says. "If you didn’t have your papers, you would be arrested, you could be
tortured, beaten, raped, and even killed. There was no recourse."

The couple
joined a guerrilla movement against the military junta that seized power in
1976. The junta went on a mission to wipe out these guerrilla activities, as
well as any participant in left-wing activism. An estimated 30,000 Argentines
"disappeared" mysteriously during the military rule from 1976 to 1983.

When the
pressure grew for Marta and Luis, they left everything behind in Cordoba and
moved the family to a slum in Buenos Aires. There they lived under an assumed
name to avoid persecution. Leandro is the oldest, and he remembers what it was
like better than the other children do. He describes the system they developed
for what to do if he came home and saw the police at the house. He was to
retrieve his brother and sister from school and take a taxi to the Swiss
embassy to seek asylum. Leandro says as a kid he treated it like a game, but
he also lost his childhood to a politic he couldn’t possibly understand.
"I can forgive," he says. "I would have done the same thing if I were in
my parents’ position. But I can’t pretend like this didn’t affect me."

Marta and Luis
had to leave the three children behind and flee Argentina on foot via the
northern border. Marta was eight months pregnant at the time with her youngest
son, Mario. They made it to Bolivia, where she gave birth. The family still
refers to Mario as "the Bolivian." Bolivia would not grant the family
asylum. They were finally accepted into France, where they lived for two
years. The family then moved to Nicaragua to fight in the Sandinista
revolution, before returning to Argentina in 1984 when democracy was restored.

I looked at
this couple and tried to imagine them as soldiers. This good Catholic mother
of four could tell you in detail how to make a Molotov cocktail. How does a
woman go from guerrilla soldier to head of a progressive Catholic movement?

As Argentines
we can’t not be Catholics," Marta says. "It’s part of our identity."
Marta explains that Catholicism is culturally ingrained in Argentina, so much
so that people are conditioned to the laws of the church—whether they like
it or not. For example, she says women played an integral part in the
revolution, but it wasn’t feminism. It was just another paradigm for the
same tired gender role. She says they wallowed in martyrdom. They were proud
that women political prisoners were tortured worse than men. They claimed to
be atheists, but were still living under the suffering, Catholic mother
paradigm that raised them. Argentina’s most beloved revolutionary, Che
Guevara, gives kudos to the female guerilla soldier in his Guerrilla
Warfare: "
One of the great tortures of the war was eating a cold,
sticky, tasteless mess. The woman as cook can greatly improve diet, and
furthermore, it is easier to keep her in these domestic tasks…the woman can
also contribute…in the manufacture of uniforms…with a simple sewing
machine and a few patterns she can perform marvels."

In Marta’s
youth, feminism was unthinkable to even the most revolutionary of Argentines.
Marta’s role in the guerrilla movement may not have broken traditional
gender roles, but it did give her an education in subversive politics. It
helped prepare her for the work she does today as head of CDD. This movement
questions gender—right down to the male-centered concept of God. Marta
considers CDD to be a subversive group that works to change reproductive
freedoms from within the power structure of the church. She says that wearing
the Catholic name is an attention-getting political act.

for CDD, the Catholic name also bothers some feminists. When Marta visited CDD
in Chile, she met with the other women’s organizations. Mirleya Zuleta,
national coordinator of the women’s group forum (FORD), grilled Marta about
how she can align herself with an institution that is so anti-female. Zuleta
agrees with the tenets of CDD, but takes issue with the Catholic identity.
"We’re not going to paint ourselves Catholic for the sake of public
visibility," Zuleta says.

Marta says this
attitude is an obstacle CDD must constantly face. "The feminists are
completely in agreement with us, but they are not willing to call themselves
Catholic," Marta says. "The Catholic women who agree with us are afraid to
speak against the church. It is difficult to find a Catholic woman who is
willing to say I am with CDD."

Catholicism is
an institution that has reentered Marta’s life with CDD. She was raised in a
very Catholic family and received a Catholic-school education. She abandoned
the religion in early adulthood because she could not support an institution
that aligned with the dictator. Because of this, she did not give her children
a religious education. "When my children asked me who is Jesus, I compared
him to Che Guevara," Marta says.

Marta believes
the gap between revolutionary values, Christian values, and feminist theology
is not so hard to bridge. She says all three are looking for a just society,
free of inequality. "Our revolutionary message was absolutely Christian,"
she says.

The message and
focus of CDD now is largely educational. They hold discussion groups about
contraception and reproductive health. They study feminist theology, which
reevaluates the entire Bible from a woman’s perspective. They produce their
own magazine and they do community outreach to educate women about their
bodies. One important objective for CDD is teaching women that sexual pleasure
is accessible to them. "Catholic women identify more with what we say about
sexuality, than they do with what the archbishop says," Marta explains.

"I have
always been marginal- ized, and this is my choice," Marta says. "But I am
not content with marginalization. This is where we are now, but always with
the hope of creating a different social structure and different mode of power.
We represent a lot of people who agree with us, but remain silent."