Connect to share and comment

Mexico's brewing battle over abortion

A debate over a woman's right to choose divides Mexico's capital from the countryside.

Nuns hold placards during an anti-abortion march in Mexico City, April 22, 2007. (Daniel Aguilar/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The first time the couple had sex, the condom tore and the woman became pregnant.

They hadn’t been together long, and upon discovering the pregnancy she decided to abort. This was five years ago, when abortion was a widespread yet illegal practice in Mexico.

A friend knew of some abortion-inducing pills — a treatment for gastric ulcers with fierce side effects for pregnant women — and bought her a bottle for about $100.

“I stared at the bottle for two days,” said the woman, who did not want her name published because of the stigma associated with abortion in Mexico. “I thought, what if I die? What if I bleed without end? What if something happens to me?”

Every year, some 875,000 women in Mexico abort a pregnancy, according to estimates by the New York-based Alan Guttmacher Institute, even though the practice remains illegal everywhere except Mexico City. Mexico's population of women aged 15 to 49 is 27.8 million, according to the country's statistics agency.

Mexico City’s legislature, which perhaps is the country’s most progressive governing body, legalized abortion in 2007. The law’s constitutionality was challenged and subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court.

Since then, a backlash has whipped through the rest of this profoundly Catholic country. Eighteen of 32 states have amended their constitutions to make abortion not just illegal but criminal: tantamount to homicide and punishable by incarceration.

An amendment to the national constitution was proposed late last year that would protect life “from the moment of conception” and lay the groundwork to criminalize abortion nationwide.

With Mexico City and the countryside at odds, a fight is brewing in the federal legislature, and activists on both sides are gearing for the looming political brawl.

In upholding Mexico City’s law, the Supreme Court argued that the right to life was an abstract one not expressly protected by the country’s constitution.

“So what’s been done in the local constitutions is to formalize the right to life from the moment of conception to natural death,” said Armando Martinez, director of Mexico’s conservative College of Catholic Attorneys. “That way the court’s argument will be moot.”

The right-to-life movement has powerful support in the Catholic Church, which is widely viewed as steering the ideological helm of an otherwise amorphous pro-life movement. The church is both a moral compass for much of the country, as well one of its most powerful institutions.