After decades of feminist movements asking for women’s rights, and years of heavy protests across Latin America, Mexico’s state of Coahuila decriminalized abortion, setting a precedent for the entire country. This comes just a few days after the Texas ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy went into effect.
Mexico has been part of the large trend of protests for reproductive rights and women’s safety across Latin America. More recently, on Sep. 28, thousands of women in Colombia, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and other Latin American countries went to the streets. It was the day of global action for legal and safe abortion. Protesters wore dark green, a color that has become a symbol of the movement.
“This is the transcendent step to decriminalization in the country. I believe there are several ways to obtain rights, the radical way including fighting, which is the one that is being used, and the more pacifist way. I think the government and the state were already submitted to the feminist movement,” said Fanny González, historian and founder of the page Aborto Legal México.
Aborto Legal Mexico promotes information, does activism, and helps people get abortions without charging for services.
Although the decriminalization is valid only in the state of Coahuila (one of the states bordering Texas), this sets a precedent in the entire country. This means that if a person has an abortion in a different state, they could be persecuted but not punished, due to the Coahuila precedent.
In short, the court established the “existence” of a right to terminate a pregnancy, in which the State cannot criminalize those who decide to abort, and the court also established that it cannot recognize the right of life starting at conception.
Yet abortion is still illegal in Mexico, although aborting before week 12 is legal in the states of Oaxaca, Veracruz, Hidalgo, and Mexico City.
In Latin America, abortion is only allowed in Argentina, Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay, and Puerto Rico.
“Today is a historic day for the rights of all Mexican women and people capable of being pregnant. Starting today is a watershed in the history of the rights of all women, especially the most vulnerable. With this unanimous criterion of the Constitutional Court, not only are the norms that were the subject of discussion invalidated but a mandatory criterion is established for all judges in the country. From now on it will not be possible, without violating the criteria of the court and the constitution, to prosecute any woman who aborts,” said Arturo Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea, President of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation, when he first announced the court’s decision on Sep. 7, 2021.
“Today is one more step in the historic struggle for their equality, for their dignity, and for the full exercise of their rights,” continued Zaldívar.
This is a step that activists have long pushed for.
“The credit goes to us, to the women who are marching who are going out to inform the population,” said Maria Matus, member of the group Marias Acompañantes, who aid, educate and help women in need of abortions for free. For security purposes, the legal name of Matus is omitted. “We as Marias Acompañantes know that there is no one way in which we act, we act from different fronts. We act in the street, we act in workshops, we act by informing other women who decide to do this process.”
Activists view this as a win for many.
“It is great news for the feminist movement. I believe that the political context in Mexico is leading to think that it is a triumph of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation and it is not. This is a triumph of the feminist movement in Latin America because firstly because we have coined the concept of ‘women and people capable of being pregnant,’” said González.
Cisgender women aren’t the only ones affected by abortion laws. In Mexico, trans men are also affected by the criminalization of abortion.
“We accompany with the different realities that cross us as women, we are not only cis women, but we also accompany trans men, we accompany trans women in this process,” said Matus. “The fact that Minister Arturo Zaldívar has said the word of ‘people capable of being pregnant’ well it tells us much more, they are telling us about an integration of the law with all the reality and also this opens up all that gap of inequality that trans men go through because many of them cannot access health services. There is even a whole stigma around it because there is no proper training.”
According to the National System of Statistical and Geographic Information (INEGI) in 2015, there were 10 men registered in preliminary investigations for abortion. The institution reported 45 women under investigation for that same year.
Meanwhile, the Information Group in Chosen Reproduction (GIRE) reported that between the years 2007 to 2016, there were 531 criminal trials for abortion, of which 216 were against women, while 152 were against men. In the rest, 163 cases, there was no mention of gender.
There is limited information on the matter and no special reports that focus only on transgender men.
Men can also be affected in other ways. According to GIRE, if someone helps another person get an abortion they can also be prosecuted. They can also be sentenced with additional charges of abortion if they kill a pregnant person.
Gonzalez says that although helping someone to get an abortion is penalized, there hasn’t been a case in Mexico.
“That the minister has said so, well it is a strong position, it is a position that they are with women and that they are with realities that had not been there for us before. That is very important,” said Matus.
Abortion remains largely a women’s issue and it is one that affects marginalized women disproportionately.
According to Matus, the women that they help in Marias Acompañantes are women that live in poverty, women that cannot travel to Mexico City to get a legal abortion.
“We as a group have observed it, there are many women who come with us and tell us ‘you know, I don’t even have (resources) to confirm that I am really pregnant,’” said Matus. “The discussion about abortion cannot be seen as a debate between those who are in favor of life or who are opposed to it, is to be in favor of life and is to respect the dignity and freedom of women. Mainly of the women who live (in) this gap.”
While legal and free abortion helps most people in that gap, legalization can alleviate many more.
When Mariana Jordan heard about the decriminalization ruling she felt happy. “The truth is that I felt very happy… because I went through an unfair situation,” she said. Jordan had an abortion in 2018 when she was 20 years old. Due to its illegality, she has kept her abortion a secret. To this day, she fears persecution for the procedure. “Why should I be paying for something that I saw as the best option for me? Because (it was) the best option for me, for the future, for everything,” she said. For security reasons, Jordan’s legal name has been omitted.
“What am I going to do?” she said, reflecting on her abortion, “I can not imagine myself with a child besides I was in an emotionally abusive relationship and also sexually abusive. I really did not have much idea.”
When she was first searching for help to get her procedure, Jordan saw limited options, with the only viable one for her being a doctor who she heard did these procedures. With borrowed money, Jordan paid 5,000 Mexican pesos for the abortion. That is the equivalent of almost two months of minimum wages at the time.
Jordan describes her experience as ‘painful.’ “I really don’t want to go through a situation like this again because it’s uncomfortable, it’s uncomfortable, it’s sad, it’s frustrating,” she said. “You do get out quite shattered is the word, both emotionally and physically, you do get quite affected if it is important to be accompanied.”
Although there is now the precedent that women across Mexico cannot be punished for having an abortion, abortion remains illegal in most states.
Federally, abortion is only allowed when the pregnancy is a product of rape. Otherwise, it is not permitted and the laws that regulate and prosecute it vary by state.
But besides the punishment itself, what is legally constituted as abortion is an issue as well. The Mexican Penal Code establishes that “abortion is the death of the product of conception at any time during pregnancy.” This accounts for a number of things other than induced abortion.
This definition includes miscarriages, and in fact, there have many cases of women who were prosecuted for having a miscarriage.
Gonzales shares how natural abortions and induced abortion can look similar: there’s bleeding and the feeling of sickness, and often medical centers do not distinguish them, so they report them.
Pregnant people face other challenges when visiting a medical center. Gonzales also shares how in these institutions women are often subject to the prejudices of the medical staff, in what she calls “psychological terror” as the staff often tell women things like “you are a murderer.”
An issue that came with the decriminalization of abortion is the conscientious objection in which medical staff can refuse to give an abortion base on their individual ethics and ideologies.
On Sept. 20, 2021, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation established that conscientious objection is allowed, but with regulations. With this, the right to practice conscientious objection under the General Law of Health was invalidated. But this does not mean that medical staff cannot practice the objection.
“It was resolved that conscientious objection in the medical field must be carefully regulated so that its exercise does not lead to violations of the right to health, particularly reproductive and sexual health,” wrote Zaldívar for Milenio. The president also acknowledged that conscientious objection is often used by anti-abortion groups to block access to abortion.
“Indeed, the Court held that the objection is a right derived from freedom of religion and conscience, but that in no way constitutes an absolute or unlimited right that can be invoked in any case and under any modality,” continued Zaldívar.
With over 80% of the population in Mexico being Catholic, religion is one of the biggest oppositions to abortion.
Gonzalez shares how her group has been harassed by those who oppose abortion.
“These people stop at our demonstrations carrying bats with nails, they carry small bombs, little bombs but they are bombs, and they throw them at us,” said Gonzalez. “They go one step further to hurt whoever is there, they are even outside the clinics, standing trying to persuade women not to abort.”
The road to legalizing abortion in Mexico and in Latin America has been going for decades and still has a long way to go, but women and reproductive rights activists remain persistent.
“We have a clear goal, we need legalization and free abortion,” said Gonzalez.
But until that is achieved, activists will continue to fight for reproductive rights.
“With law or without law we continue,” said Matus. “Before being aids, we are companions, we are friends, we are mothers, we are daughters, we are aunts and cousins as well.”
Since the movement has been heavily influenced by other Latin American countries, activists say it will not end until it includes all of Latin America.
“(The Supreme Court) was the track, but the feminist movement at a Latin America movement was the one that contributed and is the one that is boosting the decriminalization today in Mexico,” said Gonzalez, “that’s how we will keep going, all the others are missing but we are working on it.”
Gonzalez continues, “We have an important path, a struggle that has to be embraced at the Latin American level and passing Mexico we go to other countries, promoting the struggle of other comrades is also fundamental because we are not free, no woman is free without the freedom of all the others.”