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.”

As they do, pro-choice activists are fighting back with sophisticated legal tools and basic grassroots outrage. Protesters have shadowed congressional votes across the country. (In Queretaro, lawmakers crawled through a side window of the congressional building to avoid picketers who were dressed as mourners in black.) With the help of GIRE, a reproductive rights organization in Mexico City, hundreds of women have filed writs of amparo, or individual challenges to the law, with district judges in five states. Two petitions have been sent to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States, and a third is on its way. If the petitions are accepted, the commission will analyze whether the state laws violate international rights treaties that Mexico has ratified.

But the activists’ greatest hope might lie with Francisco Javier Sánchez, the former human rights commissioner of Baja California. Mexico’s judicial system is opaque and complex, and there are few ways a constitutional challenge can be brought before the Supreme Court. One way is to have a state human rights commissioner appeal an amendment. That’s what Sánchez did when the Baja California congress passed its right-to-life reform in December 2008. The Supreme Court has accepted Sánchez’s case but has not scheduled a date to decide it. In the meantime, a legislative minority of the San Luis Potosí congress brought a constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court earlier this month and is waiting for the Court to officially accept it. Although neither case will have any bearing on the laws of other states, abortion rights advocates see them as a promising start. “You have to look at this in the longer run and try to frame the discussion so that someday we can bring a case that is Roe v. Wade,” says Alejandro Madrazo, the coordinator of the right-to-health program at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City.

Recent polls suggest Mexicans might be more open to decriminalizing abortion than lawmakers realize. In a national government survey done last year, 62 percent of Mexicans said they didn’t believe the government should intervene in a woman’s right to choose. Another poll solicited by the Population Council found that 66 percent of Mexico City residents thought the city’s decriminalization law signaled a step forward for the country.

But the church remains a powerful force for moral guidance here, and the medical establishment tends to dissuade women who seek legal abortions. When clandestine operations go awry and women show up at public hospitals, the staff can’t always tell the induced abortions from miscarriages. But in Maria’s case, the doctors knew right away.

A few hours after she took the abortion pills, Maria checked into the hospital and was treated like a normal patient. Everything changed when a male doctor discovered the abortion pill she had inserted as a suppository that morning.

“Look what your daughter has done,” he said to her mother, holding up his gloved hand to show her the powdery dissolve from the pills. Students from the nearby medical school were invited to watch the surgery, and they snapped photos with their camera-phones. At one point a female doctor told her, “You don’t deserve to be a woman.” And when it was all over, three visitors from the prosecutor’s office showed up at her bedside. (The hospital denies that doctors would antagonize a patient but confirms that it notifies authorities when an abortion is suspected.) Police came to Maria’s house, took her away, and put her in handcuffs.

A year later, Maria, dressed in white, with her hands folded in her lap, recalls the story. “The hardest part of all this for me wasn’t the physical pain but the criticisms of the doctors,” she says. Maria is now serving the remainder of a 9 ½-month probation term. When that’s done, her criminal record will follow her for three years, blocking her from applying for jobs that require clean background checks.

For now Maria’s story is still fairly unusual, an early case of a woman falling into the crosshairs of newly toughened legal codes. But as state congresses continue to narrow their abortion laws, stories like hers might soon be familiar all across Mexico.