A Bizarre Award Masquerades as Humanitarian

Tuesday, June 7, 2011 - 12:18

This article originally appeared in Spanish in the June 6 issue of the Buenos Aires publication Página/12. The translation was provided by Lynn Morgan, MHC's Mary E. Woolley Professor of Anthropology.

By Mariana Carbajal

Why did Senator Liliana Negre de Alonso, one of the most conservative voices in the Argentine Senate, receive a prize bearing the name of Rosa Parks, a prominent figure of the civil rights movement in America, a black woman known for refusing to cede her seat to a white man and move to the back of a bus? This aroused the curiosity of the American anthropologist Lynn Morgan and led her to investigate the mechanisms that "pro-life" groups have developed to appropriate the discourse of human rights in Latin America and to oppose the decriminalization and legalization of abortion. Visiting Buenos Aires, where she gave a lecture, Morgan shared her thoughts in an interview with Página/12.

"It was amazing for me to find Rosa Parks here in Argentina, in a prize given to the most conservative senator in the country," she confessed.

Morgan is a feminist anthropologist and professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, specializing in medical anthropology and reproductive politics in Latin America. She has dealt with controversial issues, including the study of human embryos, to try to explain contemporary fetal and reproductive rights policies. Her books, Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos and Fetal Subjects, Feminist Positions, offer important reflections on these issues.

"As an anthropologist, I want to see how we practice rights, how rights affect our daily lives, and to examine the social life of rights," Morgan said in an interview with this newspaper before her lecture at the Ricardo Rojas Cultural Center. She was invited by the Collective of Feminist Anthropologists, in support of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion.

Morgan is writing a new book. Each chapter advances a different topic related to sexual and reproductive rights in the region. One is devoted to analyzing the Rosa Parks Award given to San Luis Senator Negre de Alonso, who is allied with the brothers Rodríguez Saá--or in other words, to elucidate what lies behind this distinction.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?

A: The project began a year and a half ago, when I learned that Senator Negre de Alonso had been given the Rosa Parks Award for her work "in support of human rights." Actually, she received the award for her work against the decriminalization of abortion, against surgical contraception, and against contraception. Then I asked: "How would it be possible to give such an award in the name of Rosa Parks?"

The Rosa Parks Award is given by a civil association called Defense of Life, based in the city of Buenos Aires, which is aligned with the more conservative branch of the Catholic Church on issues of sexual and reproductive rights, although its institutional website defines it as "nondenominational" and says that it "promotes the full enjoyment of human rights." No names or references are listed on its website, which reports that members are simply a group of "professionals of various disciplines."

But the website makes clear its position on the legalization of abortion, saying it another way: "Today, the struggle for full realization of human rights calls us to defend the lives of the unborn and to claim in international forums as a crime against humanity, any action that leaders of any country take to promote or assist prenatal homicide," the organization said, referring to abortion. The Rosa Parks Award was also given to three judges of the Buenos Aires Supreme Court in 2006 after they voted against endorsing a legal abortion requested by L.M.R., a mentally disabled teenager who had become pregnant as the result of sexual abuse. Because of the obstacles put on L.M.R.’s claim by the justices, the Argentine state has just been sanctioned by the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. Another Rosa Parks Award was given to the former Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez after he vetoed legislation that would have decriminalized abortion in our neighboring country.

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Morgan could not contain her astonishment when she learned of the existence of this prize: "Rosa Parks was a well-known figure in the civil rights movement in America, who became famous for not having given up her seat on a bus in 1955. She worked a lot with Martin Luther King for the rights of black people. She died in 2005. She was well known for her valor, dignity, and moral courage. It was amazing for me to find Rosa Parks here in Argentina, in this situation, in a prize given to the most conservative senator in the country."

Q: How did your work unfold?

A: I began to read about how certain groups are using human rights discourse in relation to sexual and reproductive rights, and I realized that there are sectors opposed to the legalization of abortion that want to appropriate the idea of human rights, using it to suit their own ends. They are talking about three things: natural rights or divine rights, which supposedly come directly from God, the rights of parents to oppose sex education in public schools, and the rights of fetuses.

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In her investigation, Morgan found that two U.S. law professors had been writing articles talking about Latin America from this perspective. They are Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at Harvard, who was the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See during the George W. Bush administration, and Paolo Carroza of the University of Notre Dame, an ex-president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Q: What did you find in their stories?

A: Although they are not specialists in Latin America, they propose that Latin America has its own distinctive history of human rights. They refer to Bartolomé de las Casas (the Spanish monk who defended the rights of indigenous peoples during the Conquest), yet without mentioning the human rights movement in response to the military dictatorship in Argentina. Their articles do not mention it. They do mention a Chilean diplomat named Hernán Santa Cruz Barceló, who worked in the '40s with Eleanor Roosevelt to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Santa Cruz Barceló proposed adding a phrase to the UDHR that people with mental illnesses and the unborn should have the right to life. Although that clause was not ultimately included, these two law professors cite Bartolomé de las Casas and Santa Cruz Barceló to argue that Latin America’s history of human rights is consistent with the Vatican vision. Their writings in English have also been published in Spanish. They have been writing about this subject since 2003.

Q: Are they rewriting history?

A: Yes, but in a very sophisticated, subtle way. They say that Latin Americans have been known as human rights violators, but that people should know that there is another, happier story. And that this positive vision of human rights should be considered in arguments opposing the legalization of abortion.

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Faced with this appropriation of the discourse of human rights, Morgan favored talking about reproductive justice.

"We have to take a broader view of sexual and reproductive rights," she says. In her view, this strategy of anti-rights groups is possible because of "the movement for sexual and reproductive rights, including equal marriage, has been so successful, and now we are paying the price of that success."

"The retaliation comes in the form of co-optation of the discourse. The World Congress on Families, for example, borrowed the networking strategies used by the women's movement. A friend of mine, Argentine researcher Juan Marco Vaggione, is writing about the secularization of the Church’s approach. Not only do they use the discourse of human rights: they also speak of bioethics and biomedicine, relying on scientific explanations to speak about fetal rights. They set up universities and offer scholarships to train people in their vision. Therefore, it is important to continue talking about the health of women, and the impact the criminalization of abortion has on them. Criminalizing abortion forces it underground, thereby putting women’s health in jeopardy."