Dispatch October 2009

Mexico's Abortion Wars

In 2007, Mexico City decriminalized first-trimester terminations. That decision triggered a backlash that has pro-choice activists on the defensive.

A few hours before she was supposed to get ready for school, Maria woke up in a nauseous, fevered panic. Just after midnight, she’d slipped out of the room she shared with her mother and taken abortion pills she’d bought from a girl at the mall. The four white, hexagonal pills came loosely wrapped in a piece of paper like some illicit party drug. That had seemed suspicious to Maria, but the girl swore she had used them herself. Nobody else knew that Maria was pregnant—least of all her mother asleep in the next bed. She was 18, single, and paying her own way through private high school. She was scared, and now she was sick.

All across Mexico, young women like Maria (who asked that her last name not be used) are caught in a growing backlash against first-trimester abortions. Until two years ago, abortion at any stage was considered a crime throughout the country, with exemptions in all states for rape and in some for fetal defects or endangerment to the mother. (There are no federal laws governing abortion.) Women’s rights groups have fought these stringent laws for decades, pointing to the health risks and arguing for reproductive rights. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 18% of the 875,000 Mexican women who sought abortions in 2006 were hospitalized for complications.

In April 2007, Mexico City decriminalized first-trimester abortion within city limits. Pro-choice groups rejoiced, but the Catholic Church, which has a dominant presence in this secular country, sounded the alarm. Conservative leaders asked the Supreme Court to overturn the law. The nation watched the case closely, and in a rare act of transparency, the Supreme Court televised six public hearings in the spring of 2008. Opponents of the law, who hailed largely from the church and President Felipe Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN), argued vehemently against first-trimester abortion, and Ingrid Tapia, a lawyer for a conservative women’s group, stole the show when she addressed the court in a low-slung black dress. “Is it legitimate,” she rasped, her violet eye shadow and matching fake nails glinting, “for a mother’s liberty to supersede a child’s right to life?”

Watch Ingrid Tapia at the Mexico City hearings

Despite such pleas, the court voted 8-3 that the city’s law did not violate the Mexican constitution. At the time, everyone assumed the states would follow the capital’s lead and legalize early-term abortions, counting on the high court to back the new laws if they were challenged. Bracing himself for an avalanche of liberal sentiment, Jorge Serrano Limón, the flat-topped and neatly dressed president of the leading anti-abortion group Pro Vida, lamented, “We are creating a culture of death. We have failed as a society.”

Serrano Limón need not have worried.

Instead of following the capital’s lead, states across Mexico quickly began passing anti-abortion legislation. Until recently, Chihuahua was the only Mexican state to have a right-to-life constitutional amendment. But three months after the Supreme Court upheld Mexico City’s law, the state of Morelos amended its own constitution to decree that life begins at conception, granting embryos the same rights and protections as the mothers who carry them. Within a year, 14 more of Mexico’s 31 states had passed similar amendments. (Three more are expected to join them soon.) Some of the amendments even outlaw the IUD, a popular birth control method. As the nation focuses on the drug war and the economy, the anti-abortion reforms are gliding through the state legislatures in rapid-fire sessions and with overwhelming support. Maria’s state of Guanajuato has a long anti-abortion history—in 2000, the legislature attempted to strike down the state’s rape exemption—and last May, the state’s congress passed its “right-to-life” reform in a debate-free vote that lasted five minutes.

In Jalisco, another conservative state that borders Guanajuato to the west, lawmakers approved its constitutional amendment with no objections and only three abstentions. Jalisco’s penal code lists the punishment for induced abortion as follows: four to 12 months in prison for the mother provided she does not have a bad reputation; became pregnant through an illegitimate union; has managed to hide her pregnancy; and conducted her abortion during the first five months. Failing one of those requirements, her term doubles; failing two or more, it triples. Recently updated, the code also says a judge can decide whether the woman deserves medical treatment instead of jail time, in which case government doctors will guide her through counseling to help her reaffirm her family values.

According to abortion-rights advocates, dozens of women in the state of Guanajuato have been sentenced for illegally terminating their pregnancies. Officials at the state attorney’s office refuse to confirm this claim but insist that no woman in Guanajuato has been jailed for having an abortion. Meanwhile, on October 14, a Mayan woman in Quintana Roo was imprisoned on homicide charges after her local hospital reported a suspected abortion. The woman claimed that she’d started bleeding spontaneously after moving furniture, and after a lawyer took up her cause, she was released without charges. Still, her widely publicized case, along with a recent investigation against a 20-year-old in Puebla, suggests that more states might begin translating their amendments into legal action. “The question that worries me is this: If a woman is raped and decides to abort, will she be punished?” asks Jose Antonio Caballero, a legal expert in Mexico City. “It seems to me that the answer has to be no. But the states are questioning this.”

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Mary Cuddehe is a writer living in Mexico City.

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