Is Ecuador's Correa blurring the lines between religion and politics?

QUITO, ECUADOR — When President Rafael Correa learned Pope Francis would visit Ecuador this summer he tweeted, “My joy is immense!”

President Correa has long identified as a leftist and a humanist, but during his seven years in office his Catholic faith has increasingly come to influence his policies on education, reproductive health, and poverty reduction.

Late last year, President Correa appointed a pro-life head to a national family planning program who favors an abstinence-only approach. Meanwhile, he aggressively stifled proposals to amend abortion laws to allow for it in cases of rape. Taken together, these moves signal a conservative shift that some observers say could undermine Ecuador's progress on maternal health, particularly among teen, indigenous, and poor families.

“This isn’t a debate about morals, but about not having access to information, to methods of contraception and abortion,” says Virginia Gómez de la Torre, a physician and reproductive rights activist in Quito. “But the moral and religious voices are louder and more influential than we are.”

Strides in maternal health

Ecuador has sharply reduced teen pregnancies over the past four years. Pregnancies among young women between the ages of 11 and 14 have decreased 18 percent since 2011, the same year that Ecuador created its National Interagency Strategy for Family Planning and the Prevention of Teen Pregnancies (ENIPLA). Led by the ministries of education and health, it has an annual budget of more than $2 million and focuses on preventive doctor visits and family planning, including access to the morning-after pill.

But last November, Correa made a surprise shift at ENIPLA by folding it into the executive branch and appointing a pro-life activist as its head. Mónica Hernández, a political appointee associated with the conservative Opus Dei organization, is been a vocal opponent of ENIPLA since its creation, and her appointment was welcomed by a growing crop of pro-life groups here.

“We applaud the new leadership of ENIPLA and trust that it will change its strategy,” says law student Ángel Eduardo Gaibor Orellana, a spokesperson for Ecuador Provida, a pro-life organization. “Now it can focus on family values and responsibility, as a way to prevent future abortions.”

Ecuador is among the most Catholic nations in Latin America: An estimated 79 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. Some 84 percent of Ecuadorean Catholics say abortion is morally wrong, as do 95 percent of Protestants in the country, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.

The country also has the highest teen pregnancy rate in South America: 81 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19. From 2004 until 2011, before the creation of ENIPLA, the rate of teenage pregnancy grew by 74 percent.

Correa had a Catholic upbringing, and attends mass every Sunday with his family. Ever since Pope Francis was appointed to head the church in 2013, Correa has glowingly referred to the pope in his weekly state broadcasts. Suddenly he found a religious leader who is a fellow Latin American and who shares Correa’s views of a church that cares about the poor.

Ms. Gómez de la Torre says differing churches haven’t always gotten along in the past. But Evangelicals and Catholics do agree on reproductive rights. “When it comes to women’s access,” Gómez de la Torre says, "Evangelicals and Catholics come together and have grown in influence under Correa.”

The 'government's job'?

Abortion has also become a contentious issue. Last year, pressure from public health and gender rights activists led assemblywoman Paola Pabón, a member of Correa’s party, to challenge a 75 year-old abortion law. That put her at odds with the president, underscoring his conservative shift.

Ecuador's Constitution “guarantees and protects life” from the moment of conception. Abortion is permitted in two instances: When a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life, or when it is the consequence of the rape of a woman with a mental disability.

During the first heated debate of the proposed amendment, Ms. Pabón and fellow assemblywomen proposed decriminalizing abortion in any case of rape. But Correa publicly chided Pabón. “I’ve spoken very clearly,” he said. “Anything that challenges life from the moment of conception is quite simply, treason.”

He threatened to leave the presidency if Pabón and others voted for the measure. When Pabón cast a “yes” vote on the measure, her party, Alianza PAIS, docked her salary for a month, a common punishment by parties seeking to keep members in line.

As of today, an illegal abortion can lead to a five-year prison sentence for the woman seeking an abortion, and a two-to-five-year sentence for her doctor.

In the end, the only change that lawmakers made was to reword an exemption category in the abortion law from "idiot" to "mentally disabled," referring to rape victims permitted a legal abortion. “In Ecuador, women have been treated, and will continue to be treated, like idiots. Other people keep making decisions about our own bodies," complains Mónica Mancero Acosta, a political science professor in Quito’s Universidad Central del Ecuador.

During a recent state broadcast, Correa defended his views on abortion and family planning. “People are saying that I want to impose my religious views on them, because I’m making a case for abstinence,” he said. “This shouldn’t have to be the government's job. That responsibility should fall on you.”