Translator’s note: This article was translated by Lynn M. Morgan, Professor of Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College. She writes: “In 2008 the Mexican Supreme Court upheld the law permitting voluntary abortion up to twelve weeks in Mexico City. A backlash began immediately and 17 Mexican states have now reformed their state constitutions to define life as beginning at conception. The following testimonial was written by a pro-choice attorney who was in the legislative chamber on the day that the constitutional reform was passed in the conservative state of Jalisco. This article is adapted from the original published in La Ventana: Revista de Estudios de Género 29(11):298-303.”
“It’s going to be a difficult day because at 11:00 this morning the legislators plan to approve the reform that will completely criminalize abortion and we will try to prevent it. So it’s better if I send you the homework now.”
So I wrote innocently to my professor on Thursday, March 26, 2009, very early in the morning, to excuse myself in case I couldn’t make it to class because it would be a difficult day for me and a historic day for all the women of Jalisco. And it was. A few hours later I was in the session chamber of the state congress, in which, in theory, all native-born or adopted Jalisco citizens have the right to enter. That day, however, not all of us had the same rights, because not all of us were invited by the Cardinal of Guadalajara, who is one of Jalisco’s political bosses.
On a previous attempt to approve the reform (February 26, 2009), the legislative chamber had been packed with people convened by the Catholic Church and pro-life groups, while those in favor of abortion rights were not permitted to enter. For that reason, knowing that they were planning another attempt to pass the reform that day, we pro-choice women decided to camouflage ourselves. We would go dressed in white, just like the pro-life groups, and we would arrive before 9 am because we were advised that it would be easy to enter at that hour. Afterwards, the doors would be closed and entry denied to anyone not identified with a particular parish or religious group. In fact most of the pro-choice women were not allowed to enter because someone (we don’t know who) had issued an order to keep them out, because they didn’t want anyone to oppose passage of the reform. They did not want even one single dissenting voice raised, because if opponents were allowed inside there would be a lot of noise and the discussion would probably have to be postponed.
That day, therefore, two of us arrived early. The rest arrived a few minutes later, and almost all of us before 9:30. At 8:50, two solitary women passed through the doors of Congress at the Independencia Street entrance with no problem. We went through the courtyard and into the session chamber. Various other people, mostly men and a smattering of women, boys, and girls, were already inside the Congress; their defining characteristic was that most of them were dressed in white.
Once inside, we sat down to await the session, which was scheduled to begin at 11:00. There were nuns and women from religious orders, and we recognized Sister Bertha, who had previously been questioned for violating the human rights of orphans and people with AIDS. There were also priests openly inviting us to join them in prayer, which people did; what’s more, there in the legislative chamber they were passing out rosaries, religious placards, and Bibles.
Once the session started, those dressed in white began chanting slogans like, “If you want my vote, vote for life,” “If Morelos could, Jalisco can too,” and “Brothers we pray that God shines on our legislators so they will vote for life.” All this was directed toward the legislators in hopes they would vote in favor of the reform. Some of the legislators seemed sympathetic to those who shouted slogans in favor of the reform, just as it was about to be raised for discussion.
When they approved the day’s schedule, they scheduled as item 7.2 the measure that interested us as well as the majority of those who had come to the chamber dressed in white. Once it was announced that measure would be opened to legislative debate, we sat in the mezzanine of the legislative chamber, both of us leaning against the wooden railing.
Behind us, other women held signs showing a fetus with the caption, “Yes you will live,” the same pictures that had been distributed by people dressed in white, who we identified as the leaders. On the other side of the same sign, I wrote, “Yes to life for women” and my companion wrote on hers: “Legislators murder women.”
All of this we did without insulting anyone or shouting a thing, but simply by exercising our constitutional right to dissent. Nevertheless, the people dressed in white began to ask that we be removed from the chamber, including a person later identified by the newpaper, La Jornada Jalisco (Guadalajara, March 28, 2009), as a member of [the paramilitary Catholic group] El Yunque, who started trying to push me out of the room. A white-haired elderly woman had been trying aggressively to grab my signs because I was not with her “group.” Saying my signs were their property so I did not have the right to carry them, she told me to leave the chamber because I was “in favor of death.” Some young men, who we identified as agitators of the group because they led the chants, prayers, and uproar, became aware of our presence and began to intimidate us, following us and taking pictures of us and anyone who approached us, including journalists and a few aides sympathetic to our position. The aggression was such that when an aide dared to call for respect, they cursed her mother and she left in tears.
When we went downstairs to be in the front of the room with our signs opposing the reform, the legislators were thrown for a loop, because their careful planning had not anticipated any interruptions. Chaos broke out in the room. The legislators didn’t know what to do with two sign-bearing women, with the press taking pictures of us, or with the public expressly brought in to oppose us. The only thing they could think of was to declare a 15-minute recess, which turned into two hours.
Meanwhile, a group of young men – tall, robust, white, some with tattoos on their arms and all with military-style haircuts – surrounded me trying to cover up my sign with their bodies so that the press would not be able to take pictures of what was written there. They pushed me physically up against the wooden railing, hissing insults into my ear: “baby killing whore,” “fuck your mother,” etc. We were in there for eight hours.
All of this happened inside the legislative chamber under the complacent gaze of the legislators. At no point did the Speaker, Samuel Romero Valle, try even to quiet them let alone safeguard the integrity of two women whose friends could never imagine constituted a physical threat. Maybe we represented the signs we carried, which said that we didn’t want the reform approved because it would violate the rights of women.
When the legislators began to take the floor to defend their votes in favor of the reform, there were speeches such as that of José Luis Íñiguez Gámez, who said in referring to the fetus, “A human being is a person with a material body and spiritual soul, possessed of intelligence and free will, with responsibility for its own actions and with inviolable, inalienable universal rights that incur a corresponding obligation on the part of individual and social human nature.”
Or that of Juan Carlos Márquez, who said that, “some people dressed in black might say, with music and banners opposing life, that they speak in defense of their bodies and can do with their bodies whatever they wish. Nevertheless, although they may defend their own bodies, they cannot attack the body of another.”
Or that of Felipe de Jesús Pulido, who considers as “worthy” only women who are mothers:
“We are saying ‘yes’ to the right to life, the inalienable right of human beings. Recognizing the right to life is inconsistent with the right to death. [He quoted] ‘Mother Teresa of Calcutta, defender of life, the family, and the moral, as well as the dignity of women to become mothers.’”
Obviously, all other women are worth nothing.
The debate lasted six hours. [The reform passed with 28 votes in favor, 2 abstentions, and 10 legislators absent.] Women’s sexual and reproductive rights, their rights to health, non-violence, non-discrimination and to their own lives, do not exist according to Jalisco’s legislators, only the fetus and nothing more.
And the lives of women? Again and again, respectfully and calmly but firmly, we said, “We have the right to be heard,” “We have the right to be consulted as well,” “The lives of women should not be put to a vote.” We requested that our companions, who were outside on the street having been refused passage, be permitted to enter but that was not done. The president of the executive committee and the legislators allowed the secular state to be made vulnerable inside the public arena throughout the session, including ordering us to be quiet because our protests were breaking congressional rules. They did not acknowledge that they were violating international accords and treaties that our country had signed to protect women’s rights.
According to the Speaker, Samuel Romero Valle, we were violating state law. In fact the legislators were violating the treaties and accords that protect our rights while they, together with the people in white, were violating the separation of church and state. Because we two women presented a threat, he ordered security officers to remove us from the premises.
March 26, 2009 was a day when the rights of Jalisco’s women were set back several years. While it is true that Article 229 of the Penal Code regulating the clauses for which abortion is permissible without criminal penalty remains intact, by modifying the State Constitution, at any moment they can abolish any or any and all secondary laws that contradict it.
It is also true that there were never any legal mechanisms that enforced the right to interrupt a pregnancy for approved reasons [including rape]. But now that the reform is approved, an embryo will have more rights than women. This “right” will be constitutionally protected while the permissible reasons for terminating a pregnancy will become secondary.
The only thing missing at this point would be if a small group that says it represents us in the state congress and that has the obligation to defend our rights would decide that it has boundless, unlimited rights over the bodies of the women of Jalisco.