Mexico’s Historic Step Toward Legalizing Abortion

Mexico’s Historic Step Toward Legalizing Abortion

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On September 6th, Laura Hernández turned on her TV and began to record an event that she had waited for years to witness: the Mexican Supreme Court’s ruling on whether the criminalization of abortion was constitutional. A psychologist by training and a native of the northern state of Coahuila, Hernández is the co-founder of Acompañantes Laguna, a network of volunteers that has helped thousands of people obtain abortions over the years. Until recently, Coahuila, which borders Texas, had stringent prohibitions on abortion. Under a law passed in 2017, people could face between one and three years in prison for ending their pregnancy. The state, one of the country’s wealthiest, also has some of the highest teen-age-pregnancy rates in Mexico, which ranks first among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in that criterion. It was in Coahuila that the case considered by the Supreme Court originated four years ago.

Hernández watched as ten justices, sitting in a semicircle, took turns laying out their arguments in a largely empty room. In the next two days, they would decide whether to set a nationwide precedent for the legalization of abortion. As in the United States, access to abortions in Mexico varies by state. Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Veracruz, and Mexico City have largely decriminalized the practice, but twenty-eight other states declined to do so after abortion was first legalized in the capital, in 2007. Depending on the court’s ruling, Mexico could join a handful of Latin American countries, including Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, and Guyana, where abortion is widely legal. Or it could remain in line with most countries in the region where the procedure is banned, except in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is at risk. The court, whose members are appointed to fifteen-year terms by the President and the Senate, had issued a series of remarkably liberal rulings in recent years, raising the hopes of Hernández and other feminists. Its chief justice, Arturo Zaldívar, whose term ends next year, had committed to bringing the judiciary “closer to the people.”

As the judges began to speak, Hernández’s cell phone filled with text messages. “I didn’t think this would be possible,” one of her group’s volunteers said. One by one, the justices argued in favor of declaring Coahuila’s restrictive law unconstitutional. Justice Yasmín Esquivel Mossa argued that the state’s penal code didn’t accomplish its intended goal, which was to inhibit abortions. “Who will stop a woman—who is desperate to move on with her life project—from interrupting her abortion?” Esquivel asked, alluding to the hundreds, or possibly thousands, of people in Mexico who are currently in jail for abortion-related crimes. “Reality gives us the answer: neither the dangers associated with a clandestine act, nor society’s threats, nor the fear of losing one’s life, and much less that of committing a crime.” Justice Alberto Pérez Dayán emphasized that the government had an obligation to guide and support people during their pregnancies—a topic that resonated particularly with the women in Hernández’s group, who see their work as an attempt to fill a void left by local authorities. “I AM HOLDING BACK TEARS,” one of Hernández’s colleagues texted her.

The following day, as the justices prepared to issue their verdict, demonstrators on both sides of the debate protested outside the court. Some held up signs supporting the “fight against a patriarchal society,” others lifted figurines of fetuses up in the air and prayed, in unison, for the abortion bans to stand. Inside the courtroom, Justice Ana Margarita Ríos Farjat said that she was against “stigmatizing those who choose to make this decision.” Her opinion mirrored that of Zaldívar, who had said that he was “in favor of overcoming the false debate between those who are pro-life and ‘those of us who are not pro-life.’ ” He added, “We are all pro-life, only that some of us are in favor of allowing women to live a life in which their dignity is respected, and they can exercise their rights fully.”

After a brief moment of deliberation, the ten justices voted unanimously to decriminalize abortion. That evening, a nearly minute-long earthquake rippled through Mexico. Some, including Hernández, took it to be a sign of the ruling’s implications in the world’s second-largest Catholic country. “Today,” she told her colleagues, “is a historic day for all of us.”

Five years ago, Hernández founded Acompañantes Laguna with the hope of addressing the fact that criminalizing abortion was not ending the practice. Instead, it was making it riskier for people, who often turn to substances like chlorine or instruments like knitting needles in desperation. “The state was not guaranteeing the right to a safe and legal abortion,” she told me. She and six volunteers considered how they could accompany people seeking an abortion. They began spreading the word about Acompañantes among other reproductive-rights organizations, then on the street and at conferences on the subject. The backlash was swift: anti-abortion groups called them murderers; some local media and conservative politicians urged people to boycott their events. “Publicly, we were even advised against using the word ‘abortion,’ ” Hernández recalled. “We could only talk about the ‘right to choose.’ ”

The philosophy behind Acompañantes was to insure that people could make their decision, whichever it was, based on accurate information. If a person wanted to know about recommended abortion methods, Hernández and her team would walk her through the World Health Organization’s guidelines. If a person was in need of medical treatment and could not get to the hospital unassisted, Acompañantes would take the person there. And if a person decided to conduct the procedure at home by taking medications that induce abortion, the group would check in with them every day for about three weeks, when a final ultrasound was recommended. Their goal was to make sure that at no point in the process would a pregnant person feel judged or alone. “It’s a rapport built on mutual trust,” Hernández said.

Word about Acompañantes spread quickly, and the number of calls that the organization received grew nearly tenfold in its first five years—from fifty to four hundred and fifty. As the organization became larger in Mexico, an unprecedented pro-choice movement gathered steam across Latin America. Known as the “Green Tide” movement, it was largely led by women in their twenties and thirties, waving emerald-colored handkerchiefs, who believed that it was inexcusable for their governments not to guarantee the right to a legal abortion in the twenty-first century. Inspired by the movement in Argentina, which last year became the largest country in Latin America to legalize the practice, thousands of women took to the streets across the region. “Our accomplishments are a reflection of what the feminist movement has been able to accomplish over the years,” Hernández said. As in the United States, that battle in Mexico and other Latin American countries is now centered on the courts.

Pro-life groups, which have long-standing ties to government officials and, in some cases, multimillion-dollar budgets, have vowed to fight the ruling in court. “The Supreme Court has not decriminalized abortion in Mexico,” Omar de la Rosa, the president of the Great Coalition of Pro-Life Leaders, told me. “What it did was issue a ruling to establish a precedent, or a criterion for the law to be applicable, but that does not mean that all local or district judges have to do the same.” Luis de la Barreda, a former head of the Commission for Human Rights in Mexico City, countered that, from now on, judges and legislators across the country will be bound by the court’s ruling. “Pro-life groups are grasping at straws,” he said, adding that all twenty-eight states with restrictive legislation will eventually have to amend their laws. “The court’s decision puts Mexico on the path of secularization—and modernization.”

Still, de la Barreda, who now works at the Judicial Studies Institute of UNAM, the country’s premier state-funded university, worried that the court had not clearly defined at what stage of a pregnancy an abortion would be legal. “If no limits are drawn, we can end up with a situation akin to that of Texas,” he said. “Some states can take advantage of the court’s imprecision to keep penalizing women.” De la Barreda argued that delay has worked as a tactic before, citing the legalization of same-sex marriage by the court, in 2015—a ruling that eight federal entities have yet to comply with. “The same could happen with abortion,” he said.

Another central question is how the medical community in Mexico will respond. For decades, doctors informed authorities when they suspected that a patient had undergone an illegal abortion. Danniela Niebla Cárdenas, the head of emergency gynecology and obstetrics services at Dr. Manuel Gea González General Hospital, in Mexico City, said that staff needed better education and training in how to treat and care for patients seeking an abortion. “We were trained to flag, to criminalize,” Niebla said. “Those kinds of behaviors—informing the Public Ministry—stem from our own ignorance, I daresay.” Even though receiving an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy has been legal in Mexico City for many years, Niebla said that some hospitals still report patients who’ve undergone abortions to the authorities. “Our society is deeply sexist,” she said. “This is an enormous step forward, but there is still much to be done.”

In a separate ruling in September, the Supreme Court recognized a medical personnel’s right to conscientious objection but called on Congress to set explicit limits to the practice so that it did not encroach on patients’ rights. In some parts of Mexico where abortion is legal, pregnant people are unable to obtain the procedure because doctors object to performing it. Niebla, who supports legalization, said that a doctor’s right to decline to perform an abortion should not curtail a person’s right to receive one. “There is a very fine line between respecting their right [to an abortion], while also recognizing our own.” she explained. “But, in the end, when this right that is ours intervenes, why should it be taken away?”

As in the United States, abortion is a bitterly divisive political issue in Mexico—so much so that the country’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, tried not to alienate either side after the court’s ruling. “It must be respected,” the President said. “We shouldn’t, in my case, take sides because there are conflicting opinions.” A recent poll conducted by the newspaper El Financiero found that fifty-three per cent of Mexicans opposed legalizing the procedure and forty-five per cent supported it. A generation gap exists, with people under the age of thirty largely backing decriminalization and those older than fifty opposing it. According to the El Financiero poll, a similar gap exists in terms of education level, with respondents who have higher levels of education backing abortion rights and those with lower ones rejecting them. “It is a constant struggle,” Citlalin Ulloa Pizarro, one of the founders of the gender-studies program at Ibero-American University, told me. “Both groups have embraced the causes and demands that their grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, and mothers left unresolved.”

For most feminist groups in Mexico, as in the U.S., the right to life is linked to the moment in which consciousness emerges and the brain begins to function. But for anti-abortion groups, life is indissociable from the moment of conception. Over the years, Ulloa said, conservative groups in Mexico have clung to the belief that the practice is the equivalent of murder and that a woman’s identity is inextricably linked to her maternity. “The imposition of sanctions seems to soothe and satisfy a significant number of Mexicans, who believe that they can organize, control, and bring order by means of limiting people’s behavior,” Ulloa wrote in a recent book, “Abortion Access in Mexico.” Women’s essence, Ulloa argued, was reduced to their fertility and their God-given roles as mothers. She said that feminists and a younger generation of Mexicans believe that motherhood should be seen “as a life option rather than an obligation or a destiny.”

In the early nineteen-seventies, when abortion was legalized in the U.S., Mexican women also demanded a loosening of the laws. But their first significant victory did not come until 1987, when President Miguel de la Madrid legalized abortion in Mexico City, for pregnancies that were the result of rape, within five months of gestation—a decision that incensed anti-abortion groups. Three years later, the PRI, which ruled the country from 1929 to 2000, closed ranks with the Catholic Church’s top leaders. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari granted full rights of citizenship to the clergy and Church institutions—a process that required the constitution to be amended in 1992. The PRI held on to power until 2000, when Mexicans voted the main opposition party, the conservative National Action Party (PAN), into office, and the country fully transitioned to democracy.

Despite the recent changes in Mexican politics, enforcement of the law remained inconsistent outside of the capital, where the challenges facing those who seek abortions are far greater. Until 2018, twenty out of Mexico’s thirty-two states had enacted laws declaring that life began at the moment of conception. Abortion carried prison sentences of up to six years and fines of more than a thousand dollars. Abortions were more likely to be permitted in cases of rape, and less likely to be permitted on economic ground. Even then, the experiences of pregnant people didn’t align with what the law dictated. In 2010, an eleven-year-old girl from the southern state of Quintana Roo gave birth to a child after being raped by her stepfather. Women’s-rights N.G.O.s argued that the girl and her mother, who came from a small rural town, were never informed of their legal rights to seek abortion in the case of rape. Authorities contended that, because more than ninety days had elapsed since the moment of gestation, the girl could have been sentenced to two years in prison for ending her pregnancy. Facing jail, the girl gave birth to the child.

Two weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Hernández and her colleagues held a rally to celebrate International Safe Abortion Day in Coahuila. Women of all ages gathered at the central square in the city of Torreón, listened to speeches, played songs, danced, and twirled hula hoops. As the day wore on, the sky turned a deep purple and a thunderstorm swirled above the women. They formed a wide circle and swayed as a singer played the guitar. Hundreds of voices sang along: “Vivas nos quiero, libres sin miedo.” (“I want us alive, freed from fear.”)

Members of Acompañantes have begun to wonder how their work will change in the months and years to come. Will they continue to operate in the shadows? Will they be able to count on the medical community’s support? What place will abortion have in the country’s politics and in people’s collective imagination? “I’d like to think that women and girls can now perceive their bodies differently,” Hernández said. “They’ve been taught to inhabit their bodies through violence, through shame. This ruling talks about how, as women, we can begin to embrace our bodies, from the standpoint of our rights and self-determination.”

A woman who had sought help from Acompañantes in the past echoed that sentiment. “The court’s ruling gives me peace,” she told me. “From now on, we’ll be empowered to choose.” Four years had elapsed since the woman, who asked not to be named, had got an abortion. At the time, she was twenty-one years old, and her partner had removed the condom during a sexual encounter without her knowledge. After she told him that she was pregnant, he never called again. For a long time, she added, the conversation around abortion had been framed around women, as though men were extricable from the act of conception and its aftermath. “They evade all responsibility,” she said.

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