The Reproductive Rights of Women in Mexico

Elia Cordova Duarte

June 10, 2022

March for abortion rights. Mexico City, September 2019. (Photo: Wotancito, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The struggle for the emancipation of women in Mexico has been a long and difficult journey, full of obstacles — ideological, cultural, religious, legal. Reproductive rights are no exception. Many religious, medical, political, cultural and other institutions seek to impose all kinds of rules on us without taking into account our most basic right to decide about our own bodies. Abortion had been illegal in Mexico since the enactment of criminal codes in 1871, 1929 and 1931, in addition to the preliminary drafts of the codes of 1949 and 1958 for the Federal District, and of 1963 for the Mexican Republic. Feminists have been organizing for reproductive rights through actions such as:

The First National Day on Abortion, in 1976.
Voluntary Maternity Project, in 1979.
Foundation of the National Front for Voluntary Motherhood and the Decriminalization of Abortion, in 1991.
Campaign for women’s access to justice, in 1998.

The movement had its first victory in the year 2000 with the passage of the Robles Law by the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District (which later became the district of Mexico City). This law authorized abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy in some instances (serious health/death risks, fetal abnormality, forced insemination). Seven more years of insistent efforts by feminist groups would have to pass in order to make abortion fully legal in Mexico City, and to have budgets allocated in order to provide it in public health institutions and hospitals, under the necessary hygienic conditions.

The Robles Law was immediately attacked by conservative Catholic forces. The Archbishop of Mexico and leaders of the Church threatened to summarily excommunicate all those involved in the promotion of abortion. On September 25, 2000, a group of representatives in the Assembly — seventeen from the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) and five from the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico (PVEM) — filed an action of unconstitutionality against the Robles Law before the Supreme Court. A year and four months later, with a vote of seven to four, the Supreme Court of Mexico (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación) resolved that there was no unconstitutionality, and the reform was ratified. As a consequence, both the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Health of the Federal District issued rules to regulate the services, procedures and obligations of public servants to perform legal abortion.

This victory led to additional reforms, one of which excluded criminal liability for abortions and came into force on January 27, 2004. This paved the way for the decriminalization of abortion. In November 2006, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and the Alternative Party presented a new reform initiative before the Legislative Assembly to decriminalize abortion in all cases.

Once again, the Catholic Church and conservative political parties challenged the law in the court. But after a year and four months of deliberation and public hearings on the subject, with eight votes in favor of a total of eleven magistrates, the Supreme Court ruled that the decriminalization of abortion in the Federal District was constitutional, thereby establishing jurisprudence on the topic.

This ruling decriminalizing abortion set a precedent, despite the fact that at that time the country had a right-leaning government, despite also the great influence of the Catholic Church, and despite the controversy that surrounded this issue. Not only feminist and human rights organizations had been mobilized, but also groups of intellectuals, artists, scientists, academics, political analysts, journalists, housewives, as well as citizens in general.

The common theme has been the demand to make abortion legal for all women, as a vital, free, and easily accessible right.

Criminalization of Abortion Harms the Most Vulnerable

The fight against the criminalization of abortion and against prison sentences for women — including for those who have suffered spontaneous abortions — has been going on for many years. Those who suffer the most from criminalization are women in the lowest economic layers of society. Women from privileged social strata have been able to pay for the interruption of an unwanted pregnancy by traveling to countries where abortion is legal and can be practiced with better health conditions and medical care.

According to a document issued by the Group of Information on Free Choice [for] Reproduction (GIRE), 380 criminal trials were registered in Mexico in relation to abortion, and in the last decade the Mexican authorities have received 3,656 accusations on this matter. Of the total number of women suspected of having illegal abortions, 33.78% went to trial, 43.54% were convicted, while 22.58% are serving prison sentences. Between 2010 and 2020, there were 28 women in prison for having an abortion in Mexico.

Despite the harsh penalties, from 700,000 to more than a million abortions are practiced every year. The exact figures are not known, and these are only estimates, due to the clandestine nature of this practice in most Mexican states. The vast majority of women who decide to have an abortion are subjected to psychological, social, legal, and physical consequences that entail the risk of having to hide as criminals, and even losing their lives.

The 2016 National Survey on the Dynamics of Household Relationships (ENDIREH) found that 9.4 million women between the ages of 15 and 49 had become pregnant within the last 5 years; of these, just over a million said they had at least one abortion. This gives an idea of the abortion rate in Mexico.

Women from the most unprotected levels of the population are the ones who are most exposed to dying from a poorly performed abortion (with unqualified midwives, clandestine medical services, or unsafe methods). Approximately 36% of those who abort have complications that require medical treatment; around one-quarter of these women do not receive the care they need, but among poor women from rural áreas, 43% cannot access post-abortion care.

Since 2007, when abortion was approved in the first 12 weeks in Mexico City, many women from other states have traveled to the Mexican capital to access a safe procedure. According to the local government, between 2007 and June 2021, 237,643 legal abortions were performed.

The Movement Forces the Government’s Hand

Abortion is so stigmatized that the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), has refused to talk about it, and consequently has received harsh criticism from multiple feminist groups. Women’s vulnerability has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Just before the latter spread, there was a broad movement that set a precedent of dissent and mobilizations throughout the country, and had succeeded in cornering the AMLO government. Only the outbreak of the pandemic prevented the administration from suffering a political defeat with serious consequences. On repeated occasions, feminist groups collided with the government which refused to listen to them, going so far as to erect barriers around the National Palace in order to keep activists away and avoid feminist demands for free and safe abortions. Likewise, the AMLO government has refused to address the claims of widespread gender violence, the insecurity that exists in our country, as well as demands for effective action against disappearances and femicides.

As a result of political pressure around abortion, Obrador was forced to transfer the matter to the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN), which on September 7, 2021 issued a ruling for the State of Coahuila, where it resolved that the criminalization of abortion was unconstitutional. This resolution now applies to all other states, which must eliminate laws that criminalize abortion. The SCJN ruling has come as a result of the mobilizations carried out by women. However, it should be stressed that this ruling is an incomplete victory. We have a long way to go in order to make abortion a right for all women, free of charge, and legislated within the constitution. To decriminalize abortion is one thing — with women not having to go to jail for interrupting an unwanted pregnancy — and another is to exercise it as a right inscribed in the law, where the state would have the obligation of creating all the conditions so that women can have access to a safe and free procedure.

Abortion Rights in the Mexican States

So far, of the 32 states that make up the Mexican Republic, only a few have been able to get their legislative bodies to approve the right to interrupt an unwanted pregnancy, and to raise this right to constitutional status. Meanwhile, discussions continue in the remaining states. Even in the states where it has been decriminalized or legalized, abortion is only allowed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and in others it is limited only to cases where the health and/or the life of the mother and fetus are at risk, as is the case in Guanajuato and Querétaro.

The following states have legalized abortion:

Oaxaca: September 25, 2019 (up to 12 weeks of gestation).
Hidalgo: July 30, 2021 (up to 12 weeks of gestation).
Chiapas: On July 7, 2021, the SCJN declared Article 181 of the state’s Criminal Code unconstitutional. In Chiapas, abortion was considered a crime (even in the case of rape) when requested after the first 90 days of pregnancy. As a consequence of the Supreme Court resolution, the deadlines for carrying out the procedure were eliminated.
Veracruz: July 20, 2021 (12 weeks of gestation).
Coahuila: On September 7, 2021, as explained above the SCJN ruled unanimously on the unconstitutionality of the law criminalizing abortion.
Baja California: October 30, 2021.
In Durango, on December 15, 2021, the popular initiative to decriminalize abortion was accepted after 7,642 signatures were delivered by the Citizen Participation Commission.
In Guerrero, since January 18, 2022 the state Chamber of Deputies has taken up the question of legalization.

One of the first initiatives for the decriminalization of abortion in Mexico was presented in 1936 by the Cuban teacher and writer Ofelia Domínguez Navarro in her paper “Abortion for social and economic reasons.” Collectives and feminist groups in the sixties took up this initiative, and to this day the struggle for abortion rights involves a significant number of women in Mexico. Our goal is to establish the right to a safe and free abortion for all women in Mexico who decide to end an unwanted pregnancy. This includes the requirement that abortion is carried out by professionals with health protections in place and in the best posible conditions.

We must also demand an end to gender violence, which is another cause of unwanted pregnancies. It is imperative to put an end to the waves of femicides that women in Mexico are suffering, and demand an end to abuse and sexual harassment of women. Let us demand a decent and efficient health service, for a world where equity is the flag that waves in the winds of equality and fraternity.

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