‘Women Shouldn’t Let Themselves Be Humiliated”: Abortion in Mexico

Marcy Bloom does U.S. advocacy and capacity building for GIRE – El Grupo de Informacion en Reproduccion Elegida/The Information Group on Reproductive Choice.

I recently had the honor of hearing the powerful remarks of Maria Luisa Sanchez Fuentes, a prominent Mexican feminist and the executive director of the Mexico-City based GIRE. This amazing organization, Grupo de Informacion en Reproduccion Elegida/ The Information Group on Reproductive Choice, has been advocating for reproductive justice and the decriminalization of abortion in Mexico since 1992. GIRE's mission is to contribute to the recognition, respect, and defense of reproductive rights, in particular abortion rights, which upholds women's free choice. Ms. Sanchez Fuentes describes her inspiring work as an extraordinarily difficult battle for a more humanitarian world that truly respects women's rights and lives.

Mexico is a nation of contradictions: a country where affluence, poverty, natural splendor, and urban blight rub shoulders. Mexico is also a country where abortion is virtually illegal because it is highly restricted and only allowed under specific circumstances, depending on individual state law. Abortion has constituted a crime in Mexico since 1931, with some restrictions lifted in recent years. The abortion laws in Mexico are less harsh than in other Latin American countries, but, still, abortion continues to be illegal in most cases. In theory, abortion is allowed when:

  • the pregnancy is the result of rape,
  • the pregnancy puts the woman's life in danger,
  • the continuation of the pregnancy would create a serious risk to the woman's life,
  • the fetus has serious genetic malformations,
  • the pregnancy is the result of artificial insemination without consent,
  • or for socioeconomic reasons if a woman already has three or more children and cannot support another ( in one state only)

However, in reality, Mexican women risk their lives and health to obtain abortions and there are approximately 600,000 to 1 million illegal abortions every year. At least 1,000 women die of medical complications following abortion every year. The Mexican Ministry of Health's facilities attend 50,000 post-abortion complications annually and the Mexican Institute for Social Security estimates that 63,000 hospitalizations per year are due to abortion. Abortion is the third-fourth highest cause of maternal morality in Mexico. But, even under the circumstances where abortion is legal, other factors such as personal, cultural, and religious bias; outright obstruction; and a lack of referral mechanisms in the health and legal sectors conspire to deny women their legal rights to abortion.

Ms. Sanchez Fuentes eloquently states,

"As is true in the U.S. in the tragic days before Roe vs. Wade, it is the young, the poor, the indigenous, and the marginalized women who suffer and die from the ravages of clandestine abortion. In both Mexico and the U.S., we see ignorance, prejudice, sexist public policies, backward thinking, increasing activism of the right-wing, and the power of corruption and theocracy, including the Catholic Church, attempting to rip away our rights. The Global Gag Rule reinstituted by President Bush on his first day in office has deprived Mexican and Latin American women of millions of dollars of funding that would typically help women with access to PAP smears, sexually transmitted disease testing, prenatal care, safe childbirth, and contraception. This destructive attitude and policy towards the lives of women in both the US and in other countries, including my own, has caused countless women to suffer and die from unsafe, unsanitary abortions. The relentless backlash in the U.S. on Roe vs. Wade has also been reflected in the violation of international agreements and national laws regarding women's rights."

Paulina Ramirez is one young Mexican woman who recently saw her brutal personal violation become a bittersweet victory that will ultimately help other women. Rape occurs in Mexico every four minutes and it is common for rape victims to be denied access to abortion care, despite the law.

At the age of 13, Paulina was raped in her home in 1999 by a drug addict. Since first-trimester abortion is allowed in Mexico in cases of rape, she, with her mother's encouragement, petitioned the government for an abortion. However, she was manipulated, deceived, and pressured to change her decision by anti-choice activists, including the attorney general of her state (Baja California) who took her to a priest. The priest told her that she would be committing a sin. Eventually, the director of the state hospital, where the abortion was supposed to be performed, showed the frightened young teen pictures of aborted fetuses in a further attempt to coerce and intimidate Paulina and her mother into believing that Paulina would die or lose her fertility if she did have the abortion. Terrified and confused by this ongoing government campaign of abusive misinformation, threats, and outright lies, she decided that she had no choice but to continue the pregnancy. When her son was born, she petitioned local Mexican courts for redress, with little success.

Then, on March 8th, 2006, four years after a case was filed in 2002 on Paulina's behalf (Paulina Ramirez v. Mexico) in the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, a breath-taking victory for all women occurred. GIRE, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and other women's right organizations signed a settlement agreement with the Mexican government. The Mexican government is required to issue a decree requiring clear guidelines for its 31 states, particularly prosecutors and health care workers, to ensure access to abortions for women who have been raped, as is required by law. The government also agreed to award Paulina, now a single mother, $40,000.00 for legal and medical fees, as well as reparations. She will also receive a stipend for her son's education. "This is the most important legal victory for women in Mexico in a decade," stated Luisa Cabal, Director of the International Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "It is the first time a Latin American government has acknowledged that access to legal abortion is a human right, and now the Mexican government is required to ensure that this right is not violated."

And what of Paulina Ramirez? Now 21 years old, she declares that

"the agreement was very good…I hope that this shows women that they shouldn't let themselves be humiliated… most of all, it is important that women know that they have rights and should push for them. The government must respect women's rights… but I am worried that there are other similar cases…women who are being denied abortions."

Yes, they still are, Paulina. Governments and religious institutions frequently still attempt to deny that women are moral and ethical decision-makers. Given the circumstances of their lives, abortion can be the most morally responsible and loving choice a woman can make. Societies must move from viewing abortion as an issue of maternal morality and see it for what it truly is – an issue of maternal mortality (New York Times editorial, January 6, 2006).

As Ms. Sanchez Fuentes of GIRE states,

"This case has tremendous significance and was a landmark victory for Paulina Ramirez and so many other women. Paulina's coercion and horrific treatment by Mexican government officials has become a symbol. Now we need to share her compelling story and her landmark case to again emphasize that safe, legal abortion is a matter of public policy, social justice, and democracy. Women should not be forced to risk their lives because they are denied access to safe abortion. The power to decide whether to have a baby or have an abortion rests with women and women must be able to freely choose the destiny of their lives."

This is true for the women of Mexico, Latin America, the U.S. – everywhere. Our work continues as we try to create a world where a story such as Paulina's will never again occur.

We don't yet live in that world. Perhaps one day we will.

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