Mexico’s Anti-Abortion Backlash


Cross-posted with permission from The Nation and was originally reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

Daniela Castro, a 21-year-old administrator for a Mexican children’s charity, got to the hospital just before dark. It was a warm, cloudless July night in 2010, and Daniela grabbed the arm of her boyfriend of three years, a handsome architecture student named Carlos Bautista. The two walked through the entrance confidently. If anything, they looked more like a pair of teen models than a couple of criminals. But Daniela was at the hospital that night because she had taken abortion pills that made her sick. Abortion is banned throughout Mexico, and authorities in her native Guanajuato, a mid-sized state in the center of Mexico with an ultraconservative reputation, like to enforce the law.

The state has opened at least 130 investigations into illegal abortions over the past decade, according to research by women’s rights groups, and fourteen people, including three men, have been criminally convicted. Given Mexico’s 2 percent national conviction rate during its most violent period since the revolution, that’s a successful ratio.

But Daniela did not have such numbers in her head when she told the attending physician her story. A few days earlier, she and Carlos had turned to Carlos’s mother for help. Of their parents, Norma Angelica Rodriguez, 41, was the most likely to be sympathetic. She had been a young mother herself, and she knew of a pharmacy in town that would sell Misoprostol—an over-the-counter ulcer drug that women take to induce labor—without asking a lot of questions. Rodriguez knew this because, like the estimated 875,000 Mexican women who have abortions every year, she had once needed the drug herself.

The doctor listened to Daniela, then slipped out of the room and made a call. Guanajuato hospitals are expected to report suspicious miscarriages just as they would a gunshot wound. It wasn’t long before a couple of officers arrived, followed by a lawyer from the district attorney’s office, who took out a note pad. “So, Daniela, how many people have you had sex with?” he asked, jotting down the answers. “And who gave you those pills?” That night, the DA opened an official probe into Daniela’s case. If convicted, both she and Carlos’s mother—though not Carlos—faced up to three years in prison.

* * *

Mexico has thirty-two states if you include Mexico City’s federal district, and until the spring of 2007, when Mexico City legalized it during the first twelve weeks of gestation, abortion was illegal in all of them. It was rarely prosecuted, though, and there were also legal exemptions. Every state had one for rape, and many to save the mother’s life; one state even had an exemption for economic hardship. Access, though, was another story. I once asked Rigoberto Velarde, the silver-haired state coordinator for Guanajuato’s Maternal Health Program, where a pregnant rape victim could get the procedure that was her legal right. Velarde drew back in his chair, widened his eyes and looked at me like I was crazy. “She can’t do that!” was his reply. Mexico’s abortion laws date back to the 1930s, and in the intervening decades two parallel systems have developed. Wealthy women could go to a private doctor or, since Roe v. Wade, travel to the United States. But any woman at the mercy of the public health system was pretty much on her own.

Mexico City’s legalization law, which required city hospitals to provide the service free, was the first in Mexico and one of few like it in Latin America (in many states the tide is turning in the other direction: in 2008 Nicaragua instituted a criminal prohibition on abortions, with no exemptions; in 2009 the Dominican Republic did the same). A month later, the National Human Rights Commission, whose director opposed the law, and the attorney general filed appeals with the Supreme Court, arguing that the law was unconstitutional. A long and closely-watched debate roiled Mexico off and on for a year, until the justices finally voted to uphold the law, in August 2008. Abortion was now legal—and free—in the capital of one of the world’s most Catholic countries. It looked like a great victory for feminists.

* * *

“Up until 2007 there had only been advances on abortion,” Elsa Conde, a former Mexico City legislator and the director of the National Alliance for the Right to Choose, one of the country’s leading abortion rights groups, told me in the summer of 2010. Advocates like Conde had spent decades chipping away at state-level bans. In 2004, for example, they got Baja California Sur to amend its rape exemption so that victims would actually be able to get legal surgeries at public hospitals; the following year the state reduced its maximum penalty to two years in jail. “But then we started seeing setbacks,” Conde went on. “And since October 2008, all we’ve seen is setback after setback after setback.” That year, lawmakers next door, in Baja California, passed a controversial fetal-rights constitutional amendment. While it did not technically change the existing rules—abortion could not become more illegal, after all—it codified one of the key goals of the US Christian right since Roe v. Wade: legally protected life beginning at “the moment of conception.” And an amendment is much harder to overturn than a law. By the end of 2009, fifteen more states had passed versions of this extreme ley anti-aborto.

The amendments were similar to a measure recently defeated in a Mississippi referendum but being prepared in other parts of the United States. In fact, the US “personhood” movement has been taking lessons from its neighbor to the south. In September Mexico’s Supreme Court rejected constitutional challenges to the ley anti-aborto in two states, providing a new spring of confidence for US anti-choicers. “This decision in Mexico provides proof that it is a viable strategy that is working in other places,” said Gualberto Garcia Jones, a legal analyst with Personhood USA. “If it had gone the other way, we would have seen pro-lifers say, If it can’t work in Mexico, it can’t work in the US.” Seventeen Mexican states—more than half the country—now have a fetal-rights amendment on the books. (Chihuahua has had one since 1994, and the seventeenth state, Tamaulipas, approved one in 2010.) This would be like the Mississippi ballot succeeding and then spreading to twenty-five states between now and the end of 2012.

The sweep was so fast and successful that no one had ever seen anything like it. Two of the three main national parties sponsored the amendments—President Felipe Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) as well as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Being anti-abortion was inherent in the PAN agenda, and the party’s state congressmen were strategizing about how to fight Mexico City’s legalization law at national meetings as early as the fall of 2007, according to a legislator who attended. (“Vicente Fox made ‘the Catholic look’ fashionable again,” Roberto Hernandez, a political analyst based in Mexico City, once told me.) The PRI’s participation was more of a departure from that party’s centrist foundations, and not all the rank and file were on board, but the PRI had been badly splintered since losing the presidency to the PAN in 2000, and the party core, perhaps sensing a change in the public mood and determined to take back the presidency in 2012, has supported the ley anti-aborto.

Catholic civic groups had done their part. Jorge Serrano, the skinny, flat-topped director of Pro-Vida, a prominent anti-abortion group based in Mexico City, became a fixture as he choreographed protests against the capital’s legalization law (one day a group of women who had had enough of his crusading showed up to taunt Serrano with a “rainstorm of thongs”—bunches of thong underwear stapled to their placards). The Mexican division of the Knights of Columbus got involved, too, mailing lawmakers plastic fetuses representing the various stages of gestation.

But as far as the feminist movement was concerned, the Catholic Church played the lead role. This was so widely believed, it was taken as fact. I was told more than once, for example, that Norberto Rivera, Mexico City’s archbishop, had hosted a fancy dinner for PAN governors and their wives during which he urged them to pass the ley anti-aborto as he pressed special rosaries from the pope into their hands. A PRI state congresswoman told me she had met a Vatican emissary who was traveling from state to state on a hush-hush lobbying mission. More recently, a bishop from Mexicali spurred the conspiracy mill when he implied that the pope had called the Supreme Court justices to influence their votes to support the ley. (The diocese declined to speak with The Nation.) But, as I learned one morning in the summer of 2010, a concentrated effort like this may not have been necessary.

That day I took a bus from Mexico City to Aguascalientes, a tiny, landlocked state in the heart of the country’s Bible Belt. Monica Delgado, the fresh-faced, preppy PAN congresswoman who drafted the Aguascalientes version of the ley, ushered me into her office in the Congressional building. There were different floors for the different parties, and the PAN floor was decorated with posters for an anti-abortion group called Vifac, whose motto is “We celebrate life.” Delgado explained that, like most PANistas, she was disturbed by the Supreme Court decision upholding Mexico City’s abortion-rights law and wanted to “bulletproof” her state against any progressive incursions. After she had finished drafting the amendment, Delgado said, she and the eight other PAN state lawmakers walked across the plaza to meet the local prelate. It sounded like the beginning of a joke: nine congressmen go to see a priest. But Delgado didn’t see anything funny or strange about the visit. The prelate had been nagging her and her colleagues in his weekly radio address, and the meeting was a “courtesy,” she said. “We had to go over and tell him, ‘It’s already been presented!’” Delgado’s proposal eventually stalled because of resistance from local feminist groups and one liberal PRI congresswoman who controlled a crucial committee. But with priests and politicians this close, it wasn’t hard to imagine the same scene playing to a different outcome in other states, regardless of any organized intervention by high-ranking clergy.

According to Diego Valadés, a legal scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, state constitutional amendments nearly always take at least a couple of months to be approved. And yet when it came to fetal rights, lawmakers in most states where the ley anti-aborto passed managed to muscle it through in a matter of days. “There has never been anything like it; it was an almost synchronized series of events,” said Valadés. But like any work hastily composed, the ley was imperfect and seemed to place the IUD and in-vitro fertilization—not to mention exceptions to the abortion restrictions that were still on the books in many states—into a legal gray zone. “They say we protect life since conception—except for these causes that we already had,” said Fatima Juarez, a demographics expert at the Colegio de Mexico, in Mexico City. “How can you reconcile ‘We protect since conception’ and ‘You can [terminate a pregnancy] for economic reasons’? It’s illogical.” Now many fear that women who terminate a pregnancy for any reason can be prosecuted for infanticide.

Instead, state prosecutors dusted off the old abortion penal codes—most of which call for prison terms or fines—and opened investigations: ten in Veracruz, thirty in Puebla and thirty-one in Hidalgo. In 2009 in the southern state of Quintana Roo, a Mayan woman was wrongfully jailed for what turned out to be a spontaneous miscarriage, and in 2010 an 11-year-old girl who was raped and impregnated by her stepfather was denied an abortion because she was four months pregnant—one month past the allowable twelve weeks. The cases became a flashpoint in the national debate over abortion and the fairness of the ley, and when I called Elsa Conde again this past August, she described what she said was a mini-backlash to the backlash: four more states had strengthened access to abortion for rape victims. But Conde was quick to add that pro-choice advocates remain in a “position of defense.” “Basically,” she said, “we’re just trying to make sure no other states adopt the ley anti-aborto.”

In May 2009 the ley was approved with a two-thirds majority in Guanajuato. Just nine years earlier, the state congress had voted to eliminate the exemption for rape victims, but the governor was forced to veto it after a public outcry. In 2009 public school teachers staged a bonfire of middle school biology textbooks, and subsequent editions had some noteworthy changes in the chapter on sex: life now begins at the “moment of conception,” and virginity is “a treasure.”

But if one episode cemented Guanajuato’s conservative status, it came in the summer of 2010, when Centro Las Libres, a women’s health group in Guanajuato City, broke the news that seven women were in prison on a charge that amounted to infanticide—homicidio con razón de parentesco, or homicide of a family member—with a maximum penalty of twenty-nine years. Some had already spent more than six years in prison, so their sentences said more about the cruelty of the Mexican criminal justice system than the new ley anti-aborto. But the women became symbols of the dangerous consequences of criminalizing abortion and a focal point for the left in organizing against the ley. All the women said the fetuses they were accused of murdering were stillborn or miscarried. Yolanda Martínez, who says she didn’t even know she was pregnant, was alleged to have left a nearly full-term fetus to die in an outhouse. But police had first arrested her on suspicion of abandoning another infant—not hers, it turned out—found that day in a different part of town. Once she was in custody, her house was searched, and officers emerged with blankets that they claimed had held her dead newborn. Susana Dueñas says three experts declared the baby she was accused of killing a stillbirth, but the judge sided with a fourth opinion, of a doctor on the prosecutor’s payroll. After a media outcry, the state reduced the penalty for the type of homicide they had been charged under—from twenty-nine to eight years. In September 2010 all seven women were released for time served.

* * *

Las Libres is not the only women’s rights group in Guanajuato, but it is the most vocal. It was the unrelenting campaigning of Las Libres that was crucial in getting the seven women released, and when the New York Times ran a story about it, the group’s director, Veronica Cruz, appeared in the accompanying photo, protectively embracing one of the newly released women.

The first time I met Cruz was on an overcast morning in the summer of 2009. Forty years old, with a round face and light brown hair, she has the energy of a longtime activist. She is earnest but cynical. Inside the Las Libres headquarters on the outskirts of Guanajuato City, she introduced me to a petite woman dressed in white named Rosario. She was 20 and had recently completed a nine-month probation sentence. Her story was shocking to me at the time. She had taken abortion pills, fallen ill with nausea, gone to the hospital and been reported to the police. She said the staff had mistreated her, calling her names, completing the abortion surgically without anesthesia (which is standard) and allowing medical students into the room to take pictures with their cellphones. She paused and started to cry. About a month after the surgery, she said, she was lured out of her house in her slippers by men in an unmarked van and taken to jail in handcuffs. Her family borrowed the money to pay the $800 bond.

But it turns out that going to the hospital is a common way for Mexican women to get caught. According to the US-based Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health and rights organization, the abortion-related hospitalization rate in Mexico is high—17 percent in 2006 (it is 0.3 percent in the United States). This is because so many abortions are clandestine, exposing women to physical as well as legal risks.

This past June I went back to Guanajuato to see Cruz. I found her curled up in a chair, gossiping with her sister, who helps run the office, and another volunteer. Cruz said that a couple of women had recently been arrested but that she wasn’t following their cases. “Honestly, it’s just too many to keep up with,” she said with a shrug. Daniela Castro’s was one of the last like it that Las Libres had pursued, so she picked up the phone to call her.

Daniela agreed to meet me at a cafe across from a large salmon-hued cathedral in the plaza of a nearby town. She looked carefree and summery in a floral A-line skirt and a fitted white T-shirt. But it was just a year before that Daniela woke up every morning worried that she was going to prison, and her life seemed to be falling apart. “My friends stopped talking to me, and they even wrote messages on my Facebook,” she said. Carlos quit the local university for a cheaper school two hours away so they could afford a private attorney, but he proved as useless as the public defender. For a while, they had no idea what to do. “We were thinking about running away to the United States—like wetbacks,” Daniela said, shaking her head. Las Libres heard about the case and connected Daniela with a group of pro bono lawyers from Mexico City who complained to the state Human Rights Commission. They argued that Daniela’s hospital interview was inadmissible because she hadn’t had a legal representative present. That small oversight seemed to be all that was needed: a few weeks later, Daniela’s case was closed for lack of evidence.

After we talked, Carlos and Daniela offered me a ride to the bus station. Carlos had been quiet most of the afternoon, but he suddenly chimed in as he was driving. “At the time there were all these kidnappings going on, all these people on the street kidnapping and murdering,” he said. “And yet we were the ones they had down at the prosecutor’s office.” Then he fell silent again, edging the truck around a corner.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Mary Cuddehe on twitter: @marycuddehe