Hot button social issues like abortion and gay marriage are a staple of American politics. But in Mexico these controversial issues were rarely a factor in elections – until now. It all started when Mexico City legalized abortion three years ago. And, late last year Mexico’s huge capital city gave legal approval for gay marriage. This in a country that’s overwhelmingly Catholic. As Mary Stucky reports, Mexicans have broken what was once considered a taboo: mixing religion and politics.
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[Sound from a noisy bar]
STUCKY: There’s a lively bar scene in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood – here gay men hold hands… hipsters mingle and flirt. Not surprising to David Lida who lives in Mexico City and wrote a book about what he calls the capital of the 21st century.
LIDA: You know when the sun goes down, sort of anything goes. It culturally is, I believe, more along the lines of a city like London or Paris than any other Latin American capital.
STUCKY: Maybe that’s why Mexico City was the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage and also the adoption of children by gay couples. Three years ago Mexico City made abortion legal in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Mexico is more than 90 percent Catholic… but it is also a country with a historically strong separation of church and state.
ACKERMAN: The fact that the president of the United States or the governors need to swear on the Bible would be something totally unheard of from a Mexican perspective.
STUCKY: John Ackerman is a constitutional scholar and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
ACKERMAN: It wasn’t until the early 1990s that priests could actually vote. Still priests cannot run for office and they cannot in their sermons directly support x or y candidate.
STUCKY: But that strict separation of church and state is changing, as Mexican politicians venture into policy areas that were previously taboo. It began with the law legalizing abortion in the capital. Mexico City is firmly in control of the leftist party, the PRD and Mayor Marcelo Ebrard who David Lida says has a knack for publicity.
LIDA: Certainly passing these laws did get him on the front pages of newspapers all over the world and he is widely believed to have presidential aspirations for 2012 which is when the next elections are.
STUCKY: But nationally the PRD is not in control. The conservative PAN party of current president Felipe Calderon opposes both abortion and gay rights. And then there’s the party that ruled Mexico for 70 years – the PRI. On paper, it’s a leftist party – but it’s leaders have been moving to the political center in their search for votes. Now, for the first time, the PRI is campaigning to defend so-called family values and the right to life. Seventeen mostly PRI-led state governments have criminalized abortion and late last year the Mexican coastal state of Veracruz asked the Congress to ban abortion nationwide.
ACKERMAN: The debate is going to be more intense over the next few years. In the 2012 presidential election these topics are going to be used to vote for one or another politician. But I don’t think there is a mandate from the Mexican people to transform the constitution on these topics.
STUCKY: In fact, compared to other countries, Mexico has a relatively high rate of abortion. Lucia Lagunes is the director of CIMAC, a network of Mexican journalists who cover women’s issues.
LAGUNES: Yes, all of us are having abortions. Much of the reporting that has been done by feminists has been about how and why women are aborting themselves. Why are women doing this? The feeling among the Mexican people has been one of horror.
STUCKY: Still, in national polls a majority of Mexicans oppose both legal abortion and same-sex marriage. Mexican political analyst and radio talk show host, Ana Maria Salazar, says it’s yet to be seen how much voters will be influenced by social issues such as abortion.
SALAZAR: It mobilized the church. We don’t know if it mobilized the people. But I do think the fact that it was debated and the fact that it was approved in Mexico City, which is the capital, in the long term has an influence in terms of being able to talk about these issues.
STUCKY: But some Mexicans say these aren’t the most important issues in a country where more than six thousand people died in drug violence last year. Luis Alfonso Alvarez Camarena is a businessman who lives in Cuernavaca.
ALVAREZ: Ok, personally I am not in favor neither abortion, neither gay matrimonies or even worse I think adoption from gay matrimonies. But that’s not the biggest issue that should be in the mind of Mexicans. There are more important issues to discuss. The first thing, I think, is security.
STUCKY: But solving the country’s security problems won’t be quick or easy. And Mexican politicians may decide it’s more expedient to campaign on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. For the World, I’m Mary Stucky in Mexico City.