Mexico’s Abortion Wars, American-Style


This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and originally published in the September 16 issue of The Nation.

On May 1, a familiar anti-abortion story line played out on Azteca 13, a popular television channel in Mexico. In the opening scenes of an episode of Lo Que Callamos Las Mujeres (What We Women Keep Silent), a Lifetime-like telenovela series about “real-life” stories, a pretty brunette with a heart-shaped face, Alondra, discovers she is pregnant when overtaken by a sudden bout of morning sickness. Her sister Sofía is concerned, but later that night, when Alondra’s boorish boyfriend comes home and she breaks the news, he asks if it’s his, then tells her to abort.

Alondra complies and, in a series of hazy scenes, visits a clandestine abortion provider. But she’s haunted by what she has done, and is awoken at night by phantom baby cries that send her searching throughout her apartment until she collapses on the living room floor, her white pajama bottoms soaked through with blood. Her illegal abortion was botched, it turns out, and by terminating her pregnancy, a doctor tells her sister, she has forfeited her fertility as well. Some weeks later, Alondra’s boyfriend is accosted on the street by another woman, also pregnant by him, who begs him to acknowledge his future child. Sheepishly, he does, shrugging as he tells Alondra, “I’m going to be a papa,” before walking out the door to be with the other woman—the one who didn’t abort.

The message seems clear enough, but the story doesn’t end there. Two years later, when Alondra meets a good man who wants a family, she pushes the memory of the abortion out of her mind. In a state of manic delusion, she experiences a hysterical pregnancy, her belly swelling with her hopes, until Sofía forces her to see a doctor and Alondra breaks down, confronted with her unresolved grief. As Alondra again lies in a hospital bed, two years wiser and infinitely sadder, the doctor hands her a pamphlet. On its back cover, facing the camera, is the logo of the Instituto para la Rehabilitación de la Mujer y la Familia, or IRMA, a Mexican Catholic ministry that offers counseling for women suffering “post-abortion syndrome”—the medically unrecognized claim that terminating a pregnancy leads to serious psychological trauma.

The May episode of Lo Que Callamos was one of several instances in which IRMA was invited to suggest a “true-life” story line for the show, broadcasting to millions of viewers its message that abortion causes devastating harm to women and their families. One episode alone had generated some 200 calls and 400 emails to IRMA in a single day, said María del Carmen Alva López, IRMA’s president and founder, when I met her last October.

“They take a real story from us, a real history, and then at the end the lady goes to IRMA and receives help,” explained Alva, a cheerful 42-year-old with beauty-pageant poise. In a lush Mexico City suburb full of gated houses, Alva sat me down on a pleather loveseat in IRMA’s small, stucco-walled counseling room. The bookshelves outside were lined with copies of Alva’s book, Y después del aborto, ¿que? (And After the Abortion, What?), and in her hands she held a thick binder containing the results of a survey of 135 clients. Of these 135 “post-abortive” women, said Alva, her smile dimming and her eyes heavy with sympathy, IRMA estimates that 70 percent have clinical depression and 10 percent have attempted suicide. Results like these, she says, prove that post-abortion syndrome is real.

That these numbers are gathered from a self-selecting group of women who have sought out IRMA’s services doesn’t dampen Alva’s conviction that all Mexican women need to hear how abortion can hurt them. They especially need to hear it now, Alva believes. It’s been six years since first-trimester abortions were decriminalized in Mexico’s Distrito Federal, home to Mexico City, and more and more Mexican women are gradually learning about their limited right to choose—although abortion rights advocates fear this message hasn’t yet made its way to provincial, working-class women.

In this atmosphere, the claims about post-abortion syndrome and other supposed risks advanced by groups like IRMA are having real effects. According to Dr. Raffaela Schiavon, director of the Mexican chapter of the international abortion rights group Ipas and a former OB-GYN who served in Mexico’s Ministry of Health, a 2012 study suggests that Mexican women decide whether or not to have an abortion based not on their religion, politics, or socioeconomic status, but rather on their fears that an abortion will hurt or kill them. The main difference for women, said Schiavon, is whether or not they’ve received information that abortion causes breast cancer, infertility, depression, or suicide—exactly the information IRMA is helping to spread around the nation.

“They’ve gotten out the message that abortion is unsafe and dangerous,” Schiavon said. Ironically, she added, “That is the case when it’s illegal.”

When Mexico City’s law changed in 2007, allowing elective abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, it was a substantial victory for reproductive rights advocates in a country, and a region, where the Catholic Church dominates daily life. Across Latin America, access to legal abortion is a rarity, and in 2007, all eyes turned to Mexico City to see how the experiment would play out—and whether it could be replicated. To date, only Uruguay has followed Mexico City in liberalizing its abortion law, and this June, the world watched as El Salvador denied a lifesaving abortion to a woman known as Beatriz for five months before finally allowing a c-section delivery for the nonviable fetus.

After decriminalization, however, a fierce backlash unfurled across Mexico. In the first three years, half of the country’s 31 provinces passed new constitutional amendments enshrining abortion bans—two of which were just upheld by Mexico’s Supreme Court this May. As a result of the amendments passed after 2007 in 18 Mexican states, women in the provinces are increasingly being prosecuted for “attempted abortion,” often reported by hospital staff when they seek help after self-abortions, unsupervised use of the medical abortion drug misoprostol, or unsafe back-alley terminations.

Regina Tames, a lawyer and executive director of the reproductive rights advocacy group GIRE (Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida), worked with several of the dozens of women being prosecuted for attempted abortion in 2012. If convicted, some of these women could face up to six years in jail, while others would be sentenced to fines or community service. Many were already condemned in their communities after newspapers printed their pictures and identified them as criminals and baby killers.

In Mexico’s so-called Rosary Belt, a band of ultraconservative states like Jalisco and Guanajuato in the center of the nation, anti-abortion advocates and other traditionalists are embracing U.S.-style culture war tactics and rhetoric. Conservative Mexican Catholics have mobilized across the provinces to Catholicize public school education, block public health announcements for condoms, and even destroy public school books that contain comprehensive sex ed. Some anti-abortion activists have marched under a powerful old symbol: the flag of the 1920s Cristero War, which pitted devout Catholics against a secularizing government that persecuted religious expression. The bloody conflict resulted in atrocities on both sides, including priests being executed among their flocks—some since canonized as martyrs of the faith—and a 2012 film about the war has resonated with conservatives in both Mexico and the United States. (U.S. Catholic commentator George Weigel recently went so far as to compare the contraception mandate in Obamacare to the legacy of the persecuted Cristeros.) Waving the flag now helps cast the terms of Mexico’s current abortion debate as a new clash in an ongoing war over religious freedom. Some abortion rights advocates say there’s a sense that today’s Mexican right “has the Cristero spirit again.”

Next to the harsh penalties of criminalization and the simmering threat of culture war, groups like IRMA and its peers seem to offer a softer, gentler approach to the anti-abortion cause. When I spoke with María del Carmen Alva López, she was preparing to meet with the ministry’s partners at Vifac, a nearby maternity home that houses women who have been convinced not to abort. Both IRMA and Vifac count themselves as part of a network of anti-abortion groups in Mexico, along with a proliferating number of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that are adopting the same ostensibly women-centered focus that has marked the modern U.S. anti-abortion movement.

On a sunny day in October, a 29-year-old Mexican-American woman named Katia walked into a CPC in the upscale Mexico City neighborhood of Anzures, explaining that she thought she might be pregnant. After Katia entered and gave her name, she was taken to a back room by a Catholic volunteer, who asked her why she didn’t want her baby. If she was pregnant, the volunteer suggested, she should marry her boyfriend or, barring that, accept the center’s offer of a place to stay where her parents wouldn’t have to know. The CPC staffers told Katia that they would perform an ultrasound to show her the fetus, but first she was legally obligated to watch a video: a four-part movie starting with the miracle of life and proceeding to a graphic abortion, interspersed with testimony from women who had variously given birth to their babies and were happy, or who had chosen abortion and were devastated. When a CPC staffer who claimed to be a nurse finally performed the ultrasound, she puzzled at length over the image on the screen before suggesting that Katia was probably seven-and-a-half weeks pregnant. When she left, they handed her a lollipop.

Katia’s experience would be nothing out of the ordinary in heartland America, where CPCs have been a fixture since the 1960s. What’s new is that this model has been exported to Mexico, where anti-abortion groups have established more than 40 CPCs in recent years.

Frequently posing as medical facilities, and often located right next door to actual abortion clinics, CPCs function by attracting women with free pregnancy tests and implied offers of abortion services, only to ambush them with graphic videos, intensive anti-abortion coercion, and strategic misinformation. (Some in the United States have even been sanctioned for fraud.) Now, thanks to the expanding reach of American evangelical and Catholic anti-abortion activists, CPCs are becoming important players in the abortion debates overseas, in countries as varied as Ethiopia, Israel, Serbia, and South Africa. Mexico is just one of the 47 nations where Heartbeat International, an anti-abortion network based in Ohio, now has partner centers. Heartbeat International, which represents more than 1,000 similar centers in the United States and 1,800 groups worldwide, has partnered with a Spanish-language website to track and promote Mexican CPCs as well. In fact, it was Heartbeat International’s website that had listed the Mexico City CPC that Katia—who was actually my translator—visited.

In Mexico, the history of CPCs (in Spanish, centros de ayuda para mujeres, or CAMs) begins with Jorge Serrano Limón, founder of the early Mexican anti-abortion group National Pro-Life Committee, or ProVida. In 1989, Serrano Limón traveled to New Orleans for a conference put on by Human Life International (HLI), an American group whose ultraconservative Catholic founder, the late Father Paul Marx, charged that Jews control the abortion “industry.” In Louisiana, Serrano Limón (who has his own unsavory connections with a Nazi-sympathizing Mexican historian) met HLI staff and CPC founders who inspired him to set up his own center in Mexico, fighting abortion before it was even legal.

Serrano Limón fell into disgrace in the mid-2000s, as ProVida became the focus of an embarrassing embezzlement scandal known as “Tanga-Gate” (Thong-Gate)—in which government funds meant to buy ultrasound equipment were instead spent on unauthorized purchases, including women’s clothing and thong underwear. Pro-choice activists gleefully took the opportunity to protest Serrano Limón’s appearances by waving cheap thongs at him in public. But HLI continued to sponsor Mexican and Latin American CAMs.

Greg Berger, a U.S.-born documentary filmmaker living in Mexico, made a film about Mexico’s CAMs in 2008, El Derecho de Decidir en Paz (The Right to Choose in Peace). Implicit in the centers’ rise was a tactical shift: from Mexico’s version of noisy clinic protests—amplified sessions of praying the rosary directed at entering patients—to appearing instead to offer women help in making an informed choice. “I think they found that it was much better to pretend that they were providing information about abortions,” Berger says, “a much better technique than the fetus-in-a-jar model.”

After Tanga-Gate, ProVida seemed to take another lesson from the United States, where women have risen to leadership positions in the anti-abortion movement, when it named a female president, Rocío Gálvez, whose promotion was announced while she was pregnant. “She was [presented as] a pregnant woman who was proud to bring life,” recalled Eugenia López Uribe, a radical young activist who is executive coordinator of the sexual rights group Balance, which works on both reproductive and LGBT rights.

This shift not only mirrored the U.S. anti-abortion movement’s trajectory but also marked a moment when U.S. partners began exerting more influence. At Gálvez’s inauguration celebration in an expensive Mexico City hotel, recalls López Uribe, the featured speakers were all from the United States, and the organizers even screened an anti-abortion video clearly made in the States and featuring an African-American baby.

Since Serrano Limón’s first CPC, Mexican CAMs have grown to several dozen and today claim to have served some 60,000 women and prevented 51,000 abortions. Mostly, the CAMs approach women as they’re heading into clinics or hospitals. Ever since Mexico City’s decriminalization in 2007, CAMs have been setting up small booths on the walkways into clinics, amid stands vending candy and food for hospital visitors. With a banner overhead offering information about abortion, the stands intentionally appear as an official part of the hospital’s intake procedure. If women stop, CAM staffers try to transport them to their remote centers, luring them to a van with the promise of a safer, cleaner, and faster abortion clinic nearby.

For women in a city where abortion is newly legal—an island of access in a country devoid of it—the CAMs’ message is disorienting. The advertisements for these “crisis centers,” including posters along Mexico City streets, make the same ambiguous offer that can be seen in New York City subway cars: “If you’re pregnant, we can help.”

“The message [of decriminalization] has not arrived to the most vulnerable, poorest, least-educated women,” says Ipas’s Raffaela Schiavon, who suspects that most working-class migrant women, often serving as domestics for Mexico City’s elite, aren’t aware of their rights and are therefore the most likely to be taken in.

Women who go with the CAM volunteers are likely to experience the same protocol that has been extensively documented in the United States. They are shown graphic videos about how aborted fetuses cry for their mothers. They are given a letter to read “from a fetus,” forgiving its mother for aborting. They are invited to stay with the CAM’s partner maternity home.

“They have all these choices,” says López Uribe: “‘What are you scared of? That your family will find out? Perfect—we’ll send a letter that you were accepted to a school, and we will take you to the [maternity] house and nobody will ever know.’” In her OB-GYN practice, Schiavon says she sometimes encountered new mothers who came to the hospital from provincial maternity homes, where they’d been cloistered away from family and friends and hadn’t felt free to leave.

But even for women who know to avoid the CAM booths, their very presence undermines the culture of safe access that advocates are trying to foster in Mexico City. “We’re trying to build an environment of rights—that we have this law and that you can exercise your rights,” López Uribe says. “When you have to tell [patients], ‘If you see this stand, don’t go to it, go straight; don’t pay attention to the people praying,’ it makes them feel like they’re doing something wrong.”

It’s no coincidence that the Spanish-language pamphlets that the CAMs hand out bear the exact same pictures of mangled fetuses as the anti-abortion protest signs on the Washington Mall. On the back of one gory leaflet collected by López Uribe’s group Balance, a black-and-white tract with images of dismembered second-trimester fetuses under the caption “human trash,” there is listed, in small type, the name and address of its publisher—in Cincinnati, Ohio. And when Mexican women show up at a CAM, it’s often an American movie they see: a subtitled version of the gruesome anti-abortion classic The Silent Scream.

To Mexico’s pro-choice community, the ties between the Mexican and U.S. anti-abortion movements are so blatant as to be self-evident. There is funding flowing from North to South, but probably more important is the wholesale migration of the U.S. anti-abortion model. “Serrano Limón went and took courses in the United States, networked, and got ready,” explained Sofía Román Montes, coordinator at the pro-choice group Equidad de Género. “He used tactics from the U.S.: The Silent Scream, the screaming at women, the vans with ultrasounds. That was all from the United States. Nothing is made here.”

Well, there might be one part of the Mexican CAMs that is indigenous, a sort of local twist. Though my translator Katia emerged from her visit to the CAM with the suggestion that she was nearly two months pregnant, the ultrasound reading was false: Katia was not pregnant. According to Mexican reproductive rights groups, such false diagnoses by CAMs are routine, with widespread reports of women being shown ultrasound images of fetuses far more advanced than they could possibly be carrying—for example, a woman early in her first trimester being shown images from a late-second-term pregnancy—as well as numerous instances of women who were not pregnant being shown an ultrasound of their “baby.”

Abortion rights advocates believe that the CAMs are showing prerecorded videos instead of actual ultrasounds. When a non-pregnant student working with Balance went to a clinic, she was shown an ultrasound image of a 13-week-old fetus. And Equidad de Género’s Román Montes seconded the experience: every time she’s sent employees into CAMs undercover, she says, “all of our workers come out pregnant, too.”

* * *

Like the CAMs, María Del Carmen Alva López’s group IRMA was similarly inspired by the U.S. anti-abortion movement. Twenty-five years ago, Alva conducted her college thesis work on U.S. anti-abortion movement leaders, interviewing many at Project Rachel, the Catholic Church’s official post-abortion ministry, which has chapters in more than 110 U.S. dioceses. Alva dreamed of setting up her own group in Mexico. After a colleague in Monterrey offered to translate Project Rachel’s materials for her, she started her own organization and assembled a team of counselors.

Today, IRMA offers individual counseling and special Bible-study weekend retreats for women who have had abortions, modeling their therapy on a support group manual written and sold by Rachel’s Vineyard—another U.S. organization that takes its name from the biblical Rachel, who mourns her dead children, this one founded by the New York-based anti-abortion group Priests for Life. On Rachel’s Vineyard’s website, IRMA is listed as the group’s Mexican partner.

Last year, an official of Human Life International spoke of visiting “as many key players as possible” to help coordinate the fight against Mexico’s “culture of death.” HLI also sponsored the creation of a large-scale, online anti-abortion resource site in Latin America. The Knights of Columbus send money. And on it goes.

Reproductive rights advocates say that with this support, the anti-abortion movement in Mexico has built a strong advocacy network to rival that of feminist NGOs, growing beyond the initial activism of the Catholic Church and ProVida to a coalition of hundreds, with new groups sprouting up “like mushrooms.” One “pro-family” leader in Mexico, Red Familia, aligns hundreds of partner organizations on a shared traditionalist platform. Red Familia is itself part of a larger network, the American-based global conservative coalition called the World Congress of Families. The WCF is an interfaith right-wing group that condemns the international expansion of abortion and LGBT rights as a form of U.S. cultural imperialism, forcing decadent liberal social mores on allegedly orthodox, traditional nations.

It seems like a laughable accusation, given conservatives’ own abundant overseas networking, but it’s a familiar argument to filmmaker Berger, who was inspired to make his 2008 film on CAMs by the frustrating popularity of the charge that abortion rights are a form of “Yankee imperialism” aimed at limiting Latino birth rates. There’s a reason why the story has appeal: The shameful history of abusive population control measures enacted on the developing world, often by U.S. groups or with U.S. money, give potency to the claim that abortion rights are a form of contemporary eugenics being forced by Americans onto a life-loving Catholic people. But what Berger found instead was that the reverse was true. While Mexico’s Catholicism may be indisputable, the recipe for its “pro-vida” movement was the true U.S. export: its leaders trained and supported in the United States, its activism model a mirror image of the U.S. one.

Mexican women, on the other hand, have needed and obtained abortions since long before colonialism. “The desire for a woman to end her pregnancy when she doesn’t want to carry to term isn’t an import from the U.S.,” said Berger. “That’s something that women go through every day and is a personal experience—not somehow imported from abroad.”

Nor is Mexico’s Catholic heritage everything that the “pro-vida” activists claim. In an attempt to counter IRMA’s widely broadcast message, the pro-choice group Catholics for Choice-Mexico has begun airing a short, regular animation series, Catolicadas, on a TV news program, advancing the idea that being a good Catholic can include supporting reproductive rights.

For some Mexican pro-choice advocates, that heritage—and the different tradition of Catholicism they practice—is already the backbone of their activism. A woman I’ll call Ramona, an abortion provider working illegally in the state of Morelos, says it was precisely growing up Catholic in Morelos—a cradle of Mexico’s liberation theology movement in the 1970s and ’80s—that made her pro-choice. She can recall the moment when a Catholic teacher in her radical church asked the class whether they thought it was acceptable for a woman to have an abortion. The students were told to answer by moving to one side of the room or the other, and Ramona found herself alone on her side.

Though abortion rights were anathema to Catholic doctrine, Ramona said, everything else the church had taught her about the fight for justice convinced her that it was right for a woman to be able to choose, and that other Catholics might come to see that. “Jesus, for me, was another person fighting for justice. It’s why it’s easy for me to be where I am. It was a chance to say the struggle is here in the world, not in heaven.”

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  • fiona64

    Well, there might be one part of the Mexican CAMs that is indigenous, a
    sort of local twist. Though my translator Katia emerged from her visit
    to the CAM with the suggestion that she was nearly two months pregnant,
    the ultrasound reading was false: Katia was not pregnant. According to
    Mexican reproductive rights groups, such false diagnoses by CAMs are
    routine, with widespread reports of women being shown ultrasound images
    of fetuses far more advanced than they could possibly be carrying—for
    example, a woman early in her first trimester being shown images from a
    late-second-term pregnancy—as well as numerous instances of women who
    were not pregnant being shown an ultrasound of their “baby.”

    This seems to echo the experience of the HuffPo blogger who, knowing that she was not pregnant, went undercover to several different CPCs and was told that a) her pregnancy test was positive and b) that her best choice was gestation — despite her saying that she did not want to be pregnant. http://www dot huffingtonpost dot com/caitlin-bancroft/crisis-pregnancy-center_b_3763196.html

    All these “organizations” have are lies.

    • Amanda Kazarian

      Fake postives? What on earth does that accomplish? Won’t the women find out in a few months that they aren’t pregnant anyway?? That is just bizarre.

      • fiona64

        The only reason I can see to it is convincing women to take their Bible study classes (for a small fee, of course …) and, of course, to have a captive audience to whom they can tell their lies about contraception and so on.

        It depends, of course, on women being low-information and frightened at the same time.

        • HeilMary1

          Switched ultrasounds of later-stage pregnancies probably are intended to guilt trip early stage pregnant women and non-pregnant investigators into opposing abortion.

        • Amanda Kazarian

          Low information is right, who would trust a liar?

          • fiona64

            Look at all of the lies told by the typical anti-choicer who frequents these fora; they clearly trust the nonsense *they* were told …

  • HeilMary1

    The ugly universal truth is that most men abandon women who don’t abort, not only because the men don’t want to spend their limited income on unwanted kids, but also because childbirth disfigures most mothers just enough to kill the men’s sexual attraction. Childbirth disfigurements and disabilities are the real ugly reasons why the Vatican banned priests’ marriages to women — to free these “godly” PLAYBOYS from the earthly squalor of squalling infants in diapers and wives with obstetric fistula incontinence. If it’s OK for priests and politicians to force abortions on their mistresses and rape victims, it’s OK for all women to get abortions for any reason and especially for medical self-defense. Mexican women need telenovelas about Catholic corruption (start with Legion of Christ founder/rapist Marciel Maciel and Human Life International rapist “Father” Tom Euteneuer) and deadly childbirth complications.

  • Mr_Cris

    Why do you people hate the truth? What are you afraid of? Calling medically accurate fetal models ‘propaganda’ sickens me.