Mexico City Makes Abortion Rights History in Latin America


April 24, 2007 marked a historic day in Mexico and the Latin American region! The Mexico City Legislative Assembly decriminalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of gestation. The capital city, a federal district similar to Washington, DC, now has one of the most progressive laws on abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean; after only Cuba, Guyana and Puerto Rico; and sets an important precedent for Latin America.

While the United States and Nicaragua face recent restrictions on abortion rights, both Colombia and Mexico have moved forward. This landmark bill marks a milestone in the struggle for the recognition of and respect for women's rights. With solid and informed arguments, the legislative representatives held an extraordinary debate that culminated in the approval of a law that recognizes abortion as an ethical dilemma that women have the capacity to resolve according to their individual conscience, without State interference. It increases exercise of free, informed and responsible motherhood, and as such, makes Mexico City a stronger democracy.

This watershed bill was approved by 46 of the 66 representatives and includes not only the decriminalization of abortion up to 12 weeks, but also reduced sentences for women undergoing abortion after 12 weeks (from 1-3 years in jail to 3-6 months or 100-300 days of community service) and the definition of pregnancy beginning at implantation—an important concept to assess gestational age, as well as reinforce the legality of assisted reproduction, investigation in embryos and therapeutic cloning. The four previously existing indications for legal abortion (pregnancy due to rape, risk to women's health, non-consensual artificial insemination and severe fetal malformation) were not modified, and they are not considered crimes, even after 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Mexico City's Health Law was also strengthened to guarantee medically accurate sexuality education and public health campaigns on reproductive and sexual rights and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, the availability of birth control methods (including emergency contraception), as well as comprehensive and quality abortion services upon request. Changes to the law require the Ministry of Health (MOH) to provide legal abortion services, free of charge, to any woman who requests it, even if she is covered by other public or private insurance. (Although proof of residence in Mexico City is needed to request a free abortion, women from other states will be able to access this service with a small payment.) These changes represent a comprehensive approach to preventing unwanted pregnancies, while at the same time respecting women's right to decide and reducing maternal mortality.

The governmental National Population Council (CONAPO) has reported an estimated 100,000 illegal abortions every year in Mexico (PDF), while the Alan Guttmacher Institute estimates put that figure at over 500,000. Due to the clandestine nature of abortion in this country, deaths due to unsafe abortion are under-registered, yet official data states that more than 1,500 women died due to abortion complications during the period 1990-2005 and many more suffered severe health consequences. Mexico City alone contributed 14% of these deaths. Unsafe abortion constitutes the fifth leading cause of maternal mortality at a national level but represents the third cause in Mexico City, which is the sixth leading state in regard to women seeking hospital care for abortion-related complications.

Feminist and reproductive rights organizations, such as GIRE, were key players during the critical debate; the health and scientific communities, journalists, editorialists, artists, intellectuals, writers, academics, social and political actors also offered overwhelming support for the decriminalization of abortion. Public opinion polls also demonstrated a solid majority of Mexico City residents approved the measure. Numbers in support of the bill ranged from 59% of the total population (Beltran y Asociados and Reforma Newspaper) up to 72% of women (María de las Heras, Demotecnia).

In a press conference on Thursday, April 26, Mexico City's Minister of Health announced that this institution will produce over a million free textbooks on sexuality education and reproductive health, including the rights acquired under this new law, for Mexico City's secondary education program. At the same time the Mexico City MOH announced that it has the following resources in place to comply with the law: 14 hospitals, 57 health centers and 858 physicians which can attend seven abortions per day in each hospital for almost 100 women to exercise their reproductive right to safe and legal abortion daily. Private hospitals are not obliged to provide services under this law, but it is expected that agreements will be signed with the state MOH. Anti-choice groups have already protested outside hospitals that provide services.

At the same time, polarization of the issue was extreme with ultra-conservative groups threatening legislative representatives and feminist groups alike, including GIRE and its allies. Specifically, the Catholic hierarchy threatened to excommunicate any legislator who supported the reform bill and the Archdiocese of Mexico's spokesperson, Hugo Valdemar, even went so far as to call feminist organizations "baby-killers", similar to intimidation attempts seen in the United States. At the same time conservative groups such as the "Mexican National Guard" called for the death sentence for those who support abortion rights and menacing e-mails circulated that suggested killing women who support abortion rights for "affecting the unborn baby's life plan." The climate of tension was such that days before the vote, the Legislative Assembly was roped off by the police to prevent escalation.

Conservative forces have pledged to bring an unconstitutionality suit against the bill, and the legal battle will begin soon. Yet, a supermajority (8 of 11 justices) is needed to declare the law unconstitutional and, given the composition of the justices, it is likely that the four votes needed to uphold the law and overturn the claim are possible. We are also cautiously optimistic, but let me explain a bit further. The unconstitutionality claim can be filed directly with the Supreme Court through four bodies: 1) Legislative Assembly members (70% voted in favor of the bill); 2) the Mexico City Human Rights Commission (which has refused); 3) the National Human Rights Commission (which is also unlikely because the Commission is currently confronting public indignity over their assessment of the alleged rape and later death of an elderly indigenous woman by members of the military) and 4) the Federal Attorney General's Office. It is still unclear which of these bodies will file the claim that must be submitted on or before May 28. Nevertheless, we must point out that the law will be in effect and services must be provided until the Supreme Court makes a decision.

Your support is needed at this critical time. GIRE is Mexico's leading voice for reproductive justice and access to safe abortion. Help us to fight the backlash!

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