Tue, Sep 30, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Chileans divided over bill to legalize divorce

CHURCH OPPOSITION The Roman Catholic hierarchy is lobbying for conditions that would make it hard for couples to end their marriages

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SANTIAGO, CHILE

This is the only country in the West-ern Hemisphere that still prohibits divorce. But after a 120-year battle, Chile is on the threshold of approving a law to change that, even though the result may carry so many qualifications and preconditions that the process of ending a marriage could become even more complex.

Opponents, led by the Roman Catholic Church and its allies in the main right-wing party in this nation of 15 million people, are fighting to have the bill include compulsory mediation, waiting periods of up to five years and no possibility of divorce unless both partners want it.

In the name of human rights and family values, they are also demanding that couples be allowed to choose marriage with a "no di-vorce" option.

"Things are getting a bit complicated, and some of these features are going to create prob-lems," said Maria Antonieta Saa, a member of Congress who introduced the legislation in 1997.

"But in the end, I think we will be able to pass a quite reasonable bill that will finally give people in Chile an honest and civilized way to terminate a marriage," she said.

Opinion polls indicate that 70 percent of Chileans favor legalizing divorce. But the church hierarchy has been conducting an intense campaign that includes lobbying members of Congress, especially those from the centrist Christian Democratic Party, and hinting about excommunication.

"What should not be done is to opt for solutions that imply the destruction of the notion of the family," Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, the archbishop of Santiago, wrote in a pastoral letter called "Let No Man Tear Asunder," issued in June.

"Many countries have done precisely that," he added, but "their experience demonstrates that introducing divorce is not the right road," he wrote.

After General Augusto Pino-chet's dictatorship ended in 1990, four unsuccessful attempts were made in this socially conservative nation to give the Civil Marriage Code its first major overhaul since the 1880s. The lower house of Congress finally approved a divorce bill in 1997, and after more than five years of hesitation, the Senate voted last month, 33-13, to take up a committee's recommendation in favor of the bill.

In an interview here, a legal adviser to the national conference of Catholic bishops, Jorge Morales Retamal, said church leaders were resigned to losing the battle. Their focus now, he said, is to mitigate the damage and to ensure that the law incorporates provisions that they want, like civil recognition of religious weddings and the "no divorce" option, which the law's authors strongly oppose.

"If you say you respect freedom of religion, why shouldn't the law let us marry for life if that is what we desire?" Morales said. "It's an insurmountable contradiction."

In the absence of divorce, Chileans have traditionally resorted to subterfuge to get out of unhappy marriages, including women who seek to be declared widows after their husbands leave them. The most popular tool, though, is civil annulment, which requires a couple to go to a court and say their marriage violated the law -- for instance, that neither of them lived in the jurisdiction where they wed.

Witnesses to a wedding have also been known to misspell their names so that the couple will have grounds for an annulment. While some judges refuse to hear such cases out of religious convictions, most rule that the marriage never formally existed.

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