HAVANA TIMES – Throughout the history of humanity, religious dogmas have had effects that have incalculable significance even today. In this article, I don’t intend to question whether those who agree with these ideas are right or wrong.
However, reflecting a little on the topic of abortion, and how it is seen today, could turn out to be interesting.
Very contradictory opinions exist regarding this issue. Especially members of religious orders and people of faith consider abortion to be a sin because it puts an end to human life, which they believe was created by God.
Others, who are less fundamentalist, see it as a crime, because for them, it also terminates a living being. But there is another group of people who thinks that abortion is a woman’s exclusive right, like euthanasia is the right of any human being.
A curious fact found in Eduardo Galeano’s text La paradoja andante (The walking paradox), and an incident that made headlines last October, have motivated me to write this commentary that I hope will encourage readers to express their opinions as well.
Medieval and Contemporary Christian Heads of State
The Christian empress Theodora never proclaimed to be remotely revolutionary. But thanks to her, 1,500 years ago, the Byzantine Empire was the first place in the world where abortion and divorce became women’s rights.
In October 2013, Ecuador’s very leftist president Rafael Correa decided that he would not sign a new penal code in his country if it included a decriminalization of abortion. He even threatened to step down if certain members of parliament from his party, Alianza País, maintained their position in favor of decriminalizaiton.
The controversial life of Theodora, Empress of Byzantium
Coming from a humble background, neither the place nor the date of her birth are entirely clear: Syria, Cypress, around the Turkish coast, or near the neighboring islands, around 500 AD. As a child, Theodora lived with her family in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
According to chroniclers of that time, she made a living by performing in shows in which she appeared in the nude. By the time she was 16, she was already one of the capital’s most famous prostitutes. Later, her life changed radically and she devoted herself to spinning.
She met Emperor Justino’s nephew, whom she married, and when the Emperor died, her husband succeeded him on the throne and she was proclaimed Empress at the age of 27.
Gifted with an attitude and a skill for governance, Theodora intervened directly in the preparation of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the Civil Rights Code, considered one of the most advanced for its time and put into effect during the Byzantine Empire’s most splendid period.
In it appeared laws that defended the equality of women, such as:
– the right to divorce
– the right to an abortion
– the prohibition of punishment for adultery
– the recognition of illegitimate children and the defense of their rights to inheritance
– the imposition of sentences for rapists
– the prohibition of forced prostitution.
In addition, she ordered the creation of rescue plans for young prostitutes, to retrain them in other professions. She supported laws that allowed women to be owners and inherit sums of money or property. She also improved women’s healthcare.
Theodora also promoted the beautifying of Constantinople, erecting bridges and aqueducts in addition to 25 churches such as the Hagia Sofía. She protected members of the Monophysitism sect (who believed that Jesus only had a divine nature and not a human one), and instated a prelate of this sect as Constantinople’s patriarch.
In 548, breast cancer took her life. She was a little over 40 years old and had succeeded in entering the gallery of History’s most relevant and influential personalities. She was buried in Constantinople’s church of the Holy Apostles.
She was one of the women of antiquity who accumulated the most reasons to be remembered for her personal experience in self-improvement and learning, who went from her condition as an actress in shows of little importance and practicing prostitution to occupying the Byzantine Empire’s throne. And for the special protection she granted to women once she attained such extraordinary political power.
She is considered a pioneer of feminism. She was a genuine social reformist and a true patron of the arts. Many of Theodora’s mandates were centuries ahead of their time. However, the religious, patriarchal and political powers that succeeded her made sure they were changed and erased them from memory.
But posterity has done her justice, especially through the arts. Beautiful mosaics that commemorate her beauty still exist in Ravena, Italy.
Victorien Sardou wrote the work Théodora in 1884. Sarah Bernhardt interpreted it and later it was adapted for the opera by Xavier Leroux in 1907. Otis Turner directed the 1910 silent film Justinian and Theodora featuring Betty Harte and Bebe Daniels.
There were other Italian silent movies called Teodora (1914 and 1919), which were directed by Roberto Roberti and Leopoldo Carlucci, respectively. The 1954 Italian film Teodora, imperatrice di Bisanzio was directed by Riccardo Freda.
The Empress is the main character in the 1906 historical novel Pod svobodnim soncem by Slovenian writer Fran Saleški Finžgar.
In 1987, the US novelist Gillian Bradshaw published a novel, The boarkeeper’s daughter, which was translated into Spanish as Teodora, emperatriz de Bizancio. She was also the heroin of the 2011 historical novel “Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore” by Stella Duffy.
Rafael Correa’s controversial position against the legalization of abortion
Last October, Ecuador’s National Assembly had a debate about a new Integral Penal Code, a legal instrument that Correa considered “not only necessary, but urgent”, seeing as the existing Code didn’t contain current types of crimes, or establish the accumulation of sanctions, explained the newspaper El Ciudadano.
The decriminalization of abortion became the most important topic of the discussion about Ecuador’s penal reforms, which seek to change the old code that has been enforced since 1930 and contains holdovers from a different time, like sanctions for begging and for desecrating cadavers and that should specify sanctions and crimes relevant to today’s reality.
The presentation of a motion to decriminalize abortion provoked great controversy. But it was retracted from National Assembly discussion on the new Code, after Rafael Correa threatened to step down if abortion was decriminalized.
The Ecuadorian president (who openly declares himself Catholic) showed great dogmatism in the discussions that the motion unleashed.
He made statements like these:
(…) The coalition [Alianza Pais] can do what they want, I will never approve the decriminalization of abortion beyond what’s in the present laws… The constitution is very clear in establishing the defense of life from conception… a negative response has already been given to this question, which implies that anything that strays from this line is simply treason… if treason and disloyalties continue, I will step down from my position.
Correa’s threat caused the presenter of the motion, Paola Pabón, a member of the governing coalition’s legislators, to repeal the initiative. Faced with the accusation of being traitors and disloyal, the female legislator declared: The traitors are not here. The traitors are those who, by taking advantage of a kinship relation, or a close relation, failed this Citizen’s Revolution (…) The traitors aren’t the ones whose aim has been to defend women’s lives…
Finally, addressing President Correa, Pabón said: With all the affection we have for you, we must tell you that this time you are wrong. The opposition’s jeering may not hurt me, what hurts is to have let down the men and women who have a legitimate right to demand a different position from this Assembly.
The paradoxes of time
I don’t want to have the last word about this topic. I’d like this article to provoke many varied comments. I only wanted to give a starting point, comparing two absolutely different points of view of a same issue. One is very progressive for its time, while the other is very conservative.
Oh, and I don’t think that posterity will dedicate statues, frescos, books or movies to Correa.
What do you think dear readers? Is abortion a sin or a woman’s unalienable right?