a bird and a bottle

A Right Grows in Mexico City

Besides Keroack’s resignation (hooray!), there was other good reproductive justice news yesterday.

parenting by choice pin

Mexico City is set to pass a law that would substantially liberalize abortion laws there. The city council will vote on April 19 and the Mayor has pledged to sign it. The law would be a beg step for any country, and an especially notable one in Latin America, where three countries completely ban abortion in all cases. And get this: the proposed law is even more liberal than the U.S.’s, and in all the right ways. The NY Times has the full story:

Dominated by liberals, Mexico City’s legislature is expected to legalize abortion in a few weeks. The bill would make this city one of the largest entities in Latin America to break with a long tradition of women resorting to illegal clinics and midwives to end unwanted pregnancies.


The Mexico City bill would make it legal to have an abortion during the first trimester for any reason. The procedure would be free at city health facilities. Private hospitals would be required to provide an abortion to any woman who asks for one, though doctors with religious or ethical objections would not be required to perform abortions.

You see that? Abortion would be FREE at all city facilities and hospitals would be required to provide the service to any woman who asks. Sure, specific doctors with objections can refuse to perform, but someone at the hospital has to do it if a woman wants it. We can’t even get such assurances for birth control.

And there’s none of the infantilizing waiting periods, which assume that women have to be forced to think through this decision, which any woman knows is and just another way to throw an obstacle in the paths of women seeking abortions. There’s no Hyde Amendment-type caveat; in Mexico City, all women rich and poor will have equal and real access to abortion services. There’s no informed consent provision which in the U.S. requires doctors to read a script engineered to discourage women from following through with their abortions and which restricts the free speech rights of doctors and the privacy rights of their patients. In short, it’s a great law.

Of course, it’s passage will not be without opponents:

“Women are dying, above all poor women, because of unsafe abortions,” said María Consuelo Mejía, the director of Catholics for the Right to Decide. “What we would like is that these women never have to confront the necessity of an abortion, but in this society it’s impossible right now. There is no access to information, to contraceptives. Nor do most women have the power to negotiate the use of contraceptives with their partners.”

Conservatives respond that abortion is tantamount to murder. “This law is a law that will cost many lives,” said Jorge Serrano Limón, the head of Provida, an anti-abortion group. “If it is signed, it will spill a lot of blood, the blood of babies just conceived in the maternal womb.”

Same old rhetoric. One side focuses on women and their rights, the other pretends women don’t exist except for as walking wombs. But here’s my favorite quote from someone opposing the law:

Mr. Serrano Limón [the head of Provida] and other opponents also dispute that the law will end illegal abortions. The procedure carries such a stigma here, they say, that whether legal or not, many women will seek out underground clinics to keep their condition secret from their friends and families anyway.

So, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps the reason that abortion is so stigmatized in Mexican society is because the repressive and restrictive laws have made it that way. The Church’s rhetoric hasn’t helped either, of course. Legalizing abortion will help destigmatize it by allowing women to come out from the shadows and to stop seeking out those back alley abortionists. See, Mr. Serrano Limón? It’s a simple game of cause and effect.

Speaking of cause and effect, this law will have a huge impact on women’s health, and particularly on the lives of poor women.

Many women here are watching the political battle with a mix of trepidation and hope. Like many laws in Mexico, the abortion law is honored as much in its breach as its observance.

Government officials estimate at least 110,000 women a year seek illegal abortions in Mexico, and many abortion rights groups say the number is much higher. At least 88 women died in 2006 from botched abortions, the Health Ministry says, though it is far from clear that all cases were reported.

For the well off, it is common knowledge that certain gynecologists perform illegal abortions in private hospitals, disguising the procedure as something else on documents.

For the poor, unwanted pregnancies often mean finding a midwife or an underground clinic, abortion rights advocates say. Some young women also resort to huge doses of drugs for arthritis and gastritis, available over the counter, that can cause miscarriages. Others use teas made from traditional herbs to cause miscarriages. All of these methods carry dangers.

Having read Rickie Solinger’s Beggars and Choosers (which I heartily recommend, btw), I’m wary of heaping blame on midwives and others who perform often safe and effective abortion services when the procedure is illegal, because it again imagines the world of abortion rights as a bunch of forces acting on women rather than a combination of many factors.

That said, there are clear risks to underground abortions, most of them created not by the procedure itself but by its illegality — in those rare instances when there is a problem, women cannot seek medical attention for fear of prosecution. And the ramifications for their lives, health, and fertility are great.

The story of one woman, Dolores, who did not want her full name used, is typical. When she was 18, she became pregnant after her first sexual encounter with a boyfriend she barely knew, mostly because she knew nothing about contraception or even the basics of sexuality.

“I was alone and had no help,” she said in an interview. “In fact, I thought about it a lot before I made the decision, but in the end there was no other way. I wasn’t in the economic position to face the situation.”

Panicked, she visited a midwife, who inserted a flexible tube into the womb to let air in and provoke a miscarriage. Dolores was told to wait three days before removing the tube.

She started bleeding within 15 minutes of leaving the midwife’s house. The bleeding continued unabated for a month. At last, she fainted in front of her parents from a loss of blood and they took her to a hospital, where she recovered slowly after a week of treatment. “I almost died,” she said.

Now 41, she has never carried a baby to term. Two of her pregnancies ended in premature births, and both infants died.

Pro-life? With stories like this pro-life has to be pro-abortion rights.

I’ve got my fingers crossed for April 19 (ironic, the religious undertones of that gesture). I’ve got hope (though it’s slim) that Mexico City can be a leader for a new era of abortion rights in Latin America (and maybe beyond?).


3 Comments so far
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Considering that the stoutly Catholic Portugal is about to (had already?) legalize(d) abortion in the first 10 weeks of a pregnancy, we may in fact be seeing something of a shift in momentum. There, 59% supported the reform in a national referendum. Interesting, the Church was opposed to the reform but seems to have refrained from a mobilizing its full political clout. (That, at least, is what I gleamed from some disappointed anti-abortion sites as well as the BBC synopsis below.)

Here are the basic on Portugal’s recent actions:

That said, there seems to be major anti-choice movements rallying in Eastern Europe, where Communist and Western European policy had tended to be more open to choice.

Comment by professorplum

Bean, what does the proposed law say about underage women and abortion? Mexico has a big problem of teen pregnancy – what little data I’ve found suggests its teen birth rate is equal to this of Hispanic Americans – so it’s important for the law to also ensure teens can get safe abortions.

Comment by Alon Levy

Good question, Alon. I did some poking around (and several different Google searches — even some in Spanish) and wasn’t able to find any details about the law’s effect on teen women. I agree that it’s important the law make abortion available to them as well….I will keep my ears open and let you all know if I hear anything.

Plum, interesting point about the church in Portugal. In Mexico, it seems that the Church is leading the charge against the law, and that it has sent envoys from the Vatican to try to rally opposition to the bill. I hope it’s a shift in momentum, but as you rightly point out, eastern European countries are trending the other way, and with Nicaragua’s new ban, I’m not sure Latin America is really any different. Remember, this is a Mexico CITY law; while the country’s legislature also debated liberalizing the abortion law, it doesn’t look like that will pass.

Comment by bean

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