Mexico's Abortion War

The culture clashes aren't just in the United States anymore.

Communities are split by the wedge of abortion rights, with pro-choice and anti-abortion doctors working tensely together in the same public hospitals and protesters yelling outside: It's a familiar image in the United States, but lately abortion has polarized another country perhaps even more. Just two years after Mexico City became the first major Latin American capital to legalize it, abortion has become a flashpoint for social conflict throughout the country. Today, a wave of anti-abortion legislation is moving across Mexico's states and towns, and both abortion-rights and anti-abortion activists and legislators are preparing for full-blown war.

As in the United States, the conflict is as much about politics as it is about abortion. Mexican political parties here have found that the touchy social topic is a useful polarizer -- one that fires up voters on both sides. With the presidential election coming up in 2012, parties are already trying to line up fervent supporters. So recently, the moderate Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has joined the ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN) in backing anti-abortion reforms. The PRI's decision is a major political gamble. A party from the center that was in power for decades before being unseated by PAN presidents Vicente Fox in 2000 and Felipe Calderón in 2006, the PRI is betting that abortion might just be the issue that could attract just enough conservative voters to bulk up its usual moderate core, snag PAN's base -- and repay Calderón the electoral favor.

Abortion law in Mexico is still a patchwork and highly local affair. In the small majority of states where it's illegal (except in instances of rape and sometimes the mother's health), abortion carries varying degrees of punishment, from mandatory psychological treatment to jail time. But since 2007, the procedure has been allowed during the first three months of pregnancy in Mexico City, drawing women from across the country -- and ire from anti-abortion discontents. After an uproar over the legalization, the country's Supreme Court upheld the capital's right to provide the service in the fall of 2008.

But just last month, when the Gulf Coast's Veracruz became the 17th of 31 states to pass legislation declaring that life begins at conception -- effectively banning abortion -- legislators there upped the ante. They submitted an amendment to Mexico's Congress that proposes outlawing abortion throughout the country. The body is obligated to consider such amendments from states. Meanwhile, six more states have proposals banning abortion languishing in their legislatures.

This recent surge of anti-abortion proposals comes with the support of both PAN and PRI. In recent years, PRI in particular has had phenomenal success in rural areas where its promises to defend "family values" and the "right to life" are hitting home with local families. And though a national ban would be unlikely to pass the legislature, says John Ackerman, legal analyst and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, it might still reflect public opinion. "In theory, Mexicans are in favor of abortion in specific circumstances like health or rape, but I think in general there is a strong current against abortion," Ackerman said in an interview. He argues that, packaged in the right rhetoric of religious morals, the anti-abortion campaign has become a powerful draw even to skeptics.

Although PAN is a right-leaning party, it has been less hard-line about the abortion issue -- something that may well push conservative voters into the more adamant PRI camp. By courting both social moderates and conservatives, the PRI is banking on a wider appeal that steals votes away from Calderon's PAN by the 2012 election.

The PRI's plan -- straddling the shaky space between the religious right and the party's usual, more moderate base -- presents high risks and high rewards. The party's position on abortion may be enough to win over the Catholic Church's leadership, for example. Over the past decade, the church has become a direct actor in contemporary social affairs, and today it is more eager than ever to assert itself. That desire to regain influence over the presidency could inspire its leaders to endorse PRI candidates in exchange for the promise of a seat at the table when the time comes to appoint ministers and officials. Especially since Mexico does not allow campaigning by candidates until right before its elections, the church's endorsement would be crucial in a tight race. In the last presidential election, they endorsed PAN, but this year PRI might hope to make it more of a contest.

But opposition to the anti-abortion laws may yet be stronger than the PRI has suspected. "Mexico is a religious country but not a fundamental[ist] country, and that is the fine line the PRI is playing," says Ackerman. The abortion question has opened a rupture between the country's conservative, Catholic past and its more liberal present reality, where divorce, premarital sex, and contraceptive use are all flourishing. Abortion-rights activists are fighting back, feverishly readying their own challenges of unconstitutionality to the anti-abortion amendments. On the streets, by phone, by e-mail, and in local outreach groups, they are encouraging women to file amparos, or legal stays, to protect their individual rights. The groups are organizing mass marches and working with the liberal Party of the Democratic Revolution to make Baja California Sur the first state outside Mexico City to decriminalize abortion. Editorials in left-leaning papers lambast anti-abortion politicians, for example PRI president Beatriz Paredes, who claims to be a feminist in support of a woman's right to choose despite her party's moving the other direction. After all, a significant contingent of the PRI is in favor of a degree of abortion rights. Campaigners believe their struggle isn't in vain. The Population Council found this year that 73 percent of Mexico City residents are in favor of the legalization of abortion.

While abortion-rights activists agree that more local anti-abortion measures may still pass, they are skeptical that a federal ban will be approved. The Party of the Democratic Revolution says it is drafting a resolution mandating a separation between church and state. They plan to demand that the PRI declare its position vis-à-vis the proposal, which could affect its anti-abortion fight. If nothing else, the debate has forced women to start asking themselves and their leaders tough questions. As Daniela Marquez, a 22-year-old shopkeeper in Mexico City, told me, "I don't agree with abortion except in extreme cases.... But I don't think the government should have the power to choose what's best for a woman."



The Other Nobel Controversy

What the recent uproar over the Nobel Committee chairman's lucrative new post says about Norway's peace prize complex.

The face of Thorbjørn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, was pasted all over the front pages of Norwegian newspapers this week -- though not because he awarded the peace prize last Thursday to an American president currently waging two wars. (That decision went over well in Oslo in the end.) What Norwegians were not so fond of was Jagland's recent acceptance of a post that comes with a tax-free salary of $380,000 a year, a mansion, and servants.

Norwegians love to save the world, but they are less comfortable being reminded that they are doing so from such a wealthy, privileged place. The evolution of the Nobel Peace Prize has always been a struggle about finding Norway's position among the countries of the world. And this year was no different.

The U.S. president's selection certainly created debate in Norway when it was announced in October. As happened elsewhere, Norwegian commentators deemed it too early for Obama to receive such an accolade; they questioned the logic of awarding the hallowed prize to someone simply for not being George W. Bush.

The criticism was more or less silenced after the ceremony in Oslo, where the U.S. president's speech was surprisingly well received. "Obama's speech created a new common image of what until now had been seen as opposites -- war and peace," wrote the daily tabloid Dagbladet. "Peace-loving Norwegians must understand that war may be necessary to secure the peace," commented VG, the country's largest circulated paper. Jan Egeland, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and a former junior minister and U.N. director, went so far as to say that Obama's Nobel lecture was "the most important ever."

Jagland, however, didn't fare so well. Norwegians questioned his appointment as the general-secretary of the Council of Europe, a pan-European organization that has long been dwarfed in importance by the European Union. To Norwegian ears, earning twice what a Norwegian prime minister takes home, and not being taxed on it, is mildly suspect. Of course, Jagland bears no responsibility for the council's special tax exemption, but it created a barrage of moral condemnation all the same.

The uproar over Jagland's tax-free gig says something powerful about the Norwegian political mentality, as well as the logic behind awarding the peace prize to seemingly awkward candidates. The five-member Nobel committee is appointed by the Norwegian parliament, and the panel's members represent core national values: Lutheran-inspired egalitarianism, with a bit of a missionary edge. The world would be a better place if everyone acted like Norwegians, most Norwegians think, sometimes forgetting the fact that is easier to be a lover of peace and harmony when you are filthy rich.

Norway's wealth is relatively new, created by oil revenues that started pouring in during the 1970s. The values of the peace prize are more deeply rooted in Norwegian history. In his 1896 will, Alfred Nobel decided that the prizes should be awarded by his compatriots in Sweden, but made an exception for the peace prize. One of the reasons, it is alleged, is that Nobel wanted to save what was then a political union between Norway and Sweden. (He failed. The union was dissolved four years after the first peace prize was awarded.) But a second argument for giving the prize away in Norway was that it was a poor, but reasonably civilized country. A Norwegian committee would not be suspected of forwarding national interests, he reasoned. "Our foreign policy is not to have one," said the first Norwegian foreign secretary, Jørgen Løvland, in October 1905, four months after the country had declared independence. He wanted Norway to stay outside the rivalry of the great powers of that time.

Nobel's theory worked for almost half a century. Norway was a neutral, remote, and mainly harmless country. The Nobel Peace Prize committee, appointed by the Norwegian parliament, consisted of frontbench politicians, including, for periods, the prime minister. They awarded the prize to a wide variety of candidates, a policy that has more or less been maintained to this day. In 1905, the prize went to Bertha von Suttner, an Austrian pacifist and friend of Nobel's, who had encouraged the Swede to create a special peace prize. The following year it was awarded to the U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt.

The tide turned in 1936 when the prize was awarded to Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist and pacifist. Nazi Germany reacted furiously. As a direct consequence, Norway's parliament changed the rules. No ministers should serve on the committee, the new rules stipulated. After World War II, during which the country was occupied by German forces, Norway gave up its traditional neutrality and became a member of NATO. The Nobel committee followed the spirit of the age and started giving the prize to a mix of representatives from international organizations like the Red Cross and various U.N. agencies, allegedly peace-seeking leaders like George Marshall and Willy Brandt, civil right campaigners like Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrei Sakharov, and more traditional idealists like Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. The committee's talent of mixing celebrity with do-gooders (as well as the advent of television) gave the prize the status it has today.

The 1970s, however, saw a return to controversy with a number of the committee's laureate picks. Henry Kissinger was named in 1973, just after his alleged involvement in the Chilean coup, for example. The Northern Ireland Peace Movement that won in 1976 failed to create peace and ended up quarreling about the prize money.

As a result of the debates and to emphasize the committee's independence from the politics of the day the Norwegian parliament changed the rules again. Since then, the committee has consisted of politicians (rotating on a six-year basis) who have left office and is designed to mirror the political balance in parliament.

That may or may not have lowered the quality of the award, depending on whom you ask. Today's committee members are, arguably, a motley crew in their late 50s and 60s who never really made it to the top as politicians. Inger-Marie Ytterhorn and Ågot Valle, representing the populist right Progresss Party and leftwing SV, respectively, had no governmental experience before being elected to the committee. Sissel Rønbeck had been minister for the Labour Party but retired from politics in 1993. Kaci Kullman Five, the present deputy head of the prize committee, was the chair of the Conservative Party and saw a meltdown of party support while she was in charge. In short, none of them are regarded as intellectual heavyweights.

And then there is Jagland, who is planning to keep his chairmanship. He has written a number of books on Norwegian and international affairs and boasts an impeccable résumé, rising from head of the Labour Party's youth movement to prime minister in the late 1990s. He was, however, hardly a success and won notoriety for his many verbal gaffes. After the Labour Party lost office in 1997 amid a party rebellion, he withdrew and has been the speaker of the Norwegian parliament for the last four years but chose not to run again this year. He has occasionally been at odds with his own party, drawing questions about his loyalty. His thinking is mainstream, European social democratic, and hardly original.

The idea of giving this year's prize to Obama was probably Jagland's and/or that of the committee's mighty secretary, Geir Lundestad. The latter, who has served as committee secretary since 1990, is a historian and an expert on U.S.-European relations. The main parts of the speech defending the choice of Obama (somewhat poorly presented by an extremely nervous Jagland at the ceremony) were written by Lundestad.

And it worked -- at least for the Norwegian home audience. The most vocal complaints in Norway came from grumpy politicians bemoaning the fact that they were not invited to the banquet after the ceremony. Instead, a guest list dotted with celebrities gave the prize a much-needed boost to its prestige.

Next year, it's a safe bet to assume the prize will go to a low-profile idealist. Still, there could be a surprise in store. The committee has already interpreted Nobel's will to imply that environmental work helps promote peace. They may expand it again.

One potential winner would, however, not be a surprise. If the prize is awarded to the European Union during Thorbjørn Jagland's chairmanship, it will be perfectly in line with his Europhilic philosophy. That would create a row in Norway, which has turned down EU membership twice in popular referenda. Such an award might even prompt withdrawals from the committee, as happened in 1994 when Christian Democrat Kåre Kristiansen withdrew because the prize was given to Yasir Arafat, whom Kristiansen viewed as an unreformed terrorist.

Awarding such a prize would really be controversial. But it would be a very Norwegian affair.