Sexual and reproductive health law meets stiff opposition from churches
Assembly stalls over women's health,
sex education and gender equality
by Eric Jackson
The bill introduces a cultural and moral system based on criteria that are alien to our cultural, moral and spiritual life. The proposal to eliminate 'gender inequality' (article 10) spreads the ideology of 'gender' by which to be a man or a woman is not defined by fundamental nature but by culture. With this, it attacks solid bases for the family and interpersonal relationships.
José Dimas Cedeño Delgado
Catholic Archbishop of Panama
letter to the National Assembly
There's a small group of persons who want to impose their own prejudices and lack of information on the rest of the population.
Teresita Yanis de Arias
about those who oppose the proposed law
They're a group of homosexuals.
National Assembly deputy
about those who support the proposed law
Does Panama have a religious right? Does it have a feminist movement?
Well, yes and no to answer both of those questions.
The national constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion and the political use of religious symbols is prohibited by law. The constitution also excludes clerics from most government posts. The Panamanian branches of some of the denominations that in the United States are closely identified with the right wing of Republican Party are not particularly identified with reactionary politics or corporate economic agendas in this country. However, Catholic catechism is taught in the public schools, a faction of Evangelical deputies crossing partisan and government / opposition lines got the National Assembly to proclaim a Holy Scriptures Month, and politicians are forever availing themselves of opportunities to show their piety and get their programs endorsed by religious leaders.
Panama clearly has a women's movement, but it would be difficult to precisely characterize it as “feminist” in the North American sense of the concept. Abortion is illegal here and pretty much off of everyone's political agenda. There is no prominent Panamanian character with the stature of a Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer or Gloria Steinem promulgating a systematic take on this country, its social mores and its institutions from an independent and irreverent woman's point of view. However, when the president appointed and the National Assembly approved a national ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) who had been accused of domestic violence and in the course of his denials indicated that he thought the entire subject is overblown and that in such cases men are the victims of discrimination, a coalition of several dozen women's organizations didn't quit until he was removed from office and more or less run out of public life. Such Martín Torrijos penal reform proposals as the legalization of the first offense of domestic violence and a marriage proposal as a defense to a statutory rape charge also bit the dust in the face of opposition from many of the same women.
Now a battle between these forces is joined over a proposed Sexual and Reproductive Health Law. The proposal, in the works for more than two years, including with initial consultations with the Catholic Church, would, among other things promote sex education in the public schools, assure the availability of contraception and sterilization services to Panamanian women, mandate campaigns against HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and embrace the ideas that individuals --- including minors --- ought to have the autonomy to make decisions about their own sex lives and that there ought to be equality between the male and female halves of humanity.
The Torrijos administration, spearheaded by Minister of Social Development María Roquebert, is backing the much delayed proposal but expressing a willingness for a certain amount of compromise. It has met with a firestorm of church-based opposition, from the Catholic hierarchy and a number of Evangelical churches (with a few Americans carrying English-language picket signs among the latter contingent). These, in turn, have brought out dozens of women's organizations on the other side.
The proposal, duly submitted to the National Assembly by President Torrijos and his Cabinet Council, was referred to the legislature's Health Committee and once hearings for the first vote got underway despite the Catholic Church's boycott of the proceedings they quickly degenerated into shouting matches.
Sandra Ka, the alternate (suplente) for Panameñista deputy Miguel Fanovich, called the proposal “a scam to create abortion clinics and promote the sales of contraceptives.” (The proposal does address contraception and sterilization, but doesn't mention abortion.) Supporters of the proposal pointed out that in the Ngobe-Bugle Comarca 469 mothers die for every 100,000 live births (against a national average of 66 maternal deaths); and that AIDS is the third leading cause of death for those between ages 15 and 24, arguing that these statistics indicate the urgent need for legislation.
A subcommittee was composed of Evangelical deputy Vladimir Herrera (a MOLIRENA member who proposed a national Bible Month that was eventually passed as Holy Scriptures Month), Miguel Fanovich and PRD members Antonio Rodríguez and Crispiano Adames, the latter the alternate for the notorious Franz Wever. These four men will be in charge of hearing public testimony and taking written statements through October 17.
2008 by Eric Jackson
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