Mexico's brewing battle over abortion

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.

What’s less clear is just how much support the states’ constitutional amendments have among citizens, and women in particular. Daptnhe Cuevas Ortiz, director of the pro-choice Consortium for Parliamentary Dialogue and Equality, suggests that while many Mexicans may personally reject abortion there is little support for criminalizing the act.

“People have shown that they wholly reject that a woman go to prison for an abortion,” she said. “That’s different from people saying they want to protect life. That women who decide to abort have the right to do it and not go to prison, on that there is absolute consensus.”

Political parties on the right and left remain internally divided on the issue. Legislators in the 18 states supporting the stringent new laws have come from Mexico’s three main parties: the PAN on the right, the PRI in the center and the PRD on the left.

Women who have the means are now making their way by the thousands to Mexico City — not just from other Mexican states but also from other Latin American countries. Abortion is either totally prohibited or highly restricted in every Latin American country except Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guyana, according to GIRE, a Mexico-based nonprofit advocacy group for reproductive rights.

Some 34,351 women have sought legal abortions in the capital since 2007, according to GIRE.

Dr. Ana Maria Camarillo runs a Mexico City clinic that performs an average of five abortions a day. Her Center for Integrative Attention for Couples has received women from every Mexican state, as well as women from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Colombia.

But the political change has translated slowly into cultural openness, even in Mexico City. Camarillo says she encourages her patients to speak out and talk with other women, so that their voices may be heard.

For Camarillo it's a given that the debate over a woman’s right to choose must be had at the national level: as it stands, the law does not treat all Mexican women equally.

Fondo Maria, an organization founded last June, tries to mitigate the differences by providing financial and emotional support for women who want to come to Mexico City for an abortion. Last year it brought 50 women to the capital from outlying states, including a 12-year-old girl who had been raped and a 43-year-old woman who hadn’t the resources to raise a child.

“The point is that women are going to keep deciding” regardless of whether abortion is labeled a criminal act, said Oriana Lopez, coordinator of Fondo Maria.

The woman who chose to abort her unplanned pregnancy on her own — and did so in defiance of the law — said she took the pills despite her fears and according to her friend’s indications: three orally, three vaginally. Painful cramps gripped her immediately, and she bled for nearly 20 days.

She survived the abortion without complications. But every year 149,700 women end up hospitalized for problems associated with such unpredictable abortion home remedies and 100 — nearly two per week — die from the clandestine abortions.

“I never thought about whether the law would support me or not,” she said. “I simply decided.”