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Mexico: A victory for women’s long struggle for right to abortion

Sunday 31 August 2008, by siawi

(A series of recent articles from the media compiled by

Mexico: Conservatives Lose Key Battle Against Abortion

by Diego Cevallos (Inter Press Service - August 27, 2008)

MEXICO CITY, Aug 27 (IPS) - The Mexican government, Catholic Church and conservative groups lost a crucial battle Wednesday in their fight against abortion, which was legalised in the capital in April 2007.

In Supreme Court deliberations on a legal challenge brought by the conservative federal government last year with the aim of overturning the 2007 Mexico City law, it became clear Wednesday that at least seven of the 11 justices would vote that the law does not violate the constitution.

Although the Supreme Court sessions will continue, there is no longer any chance that the Mexico City law will be revoked, because at least eight of the 11 magistrates would have to declare it unconstitutional.

“Reason, the law, and women’s right to decide have prevailed,” Lorena Martínez, a member of a women’s rights group at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told IPS.

But Marcela Fernández, of the anti-abortion group Comité Pro Vida (Pro Life Committee), lamented to IPS that “the sacred right to life is the loser here.”

The federal Attorney General’s Office and National Human Rights Commission had challenged the constitutionality of the Mexico City law that legalised abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Since the law went into effect, 26,000 women have sought information in municipal public health facilities on the right to abortion, and 12,262 women have undergone the procedure in Mexico City.

According to the local authorities, 50 percent of the women who had abortions were single women under the age of 24, and the women were two months pregnant on average.

The law that struck down the penalties for abortion — three to six months in prison or community service — was approved last year by the Mexico City assembly, which is dominated by the leftwing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

Although the penalties remain in place for women who undergo an abortion after the 12th week of pregnancy without medical indication, studies show that the punishment is rarely if ever applied.

The Supreme Court held several hearings between April and June to receive input from activists, lawyers, doctors, government officials and religious groups opposed to and in favour of the law that legalised abortion in Mexico City.

On Sunday, the day before the magistrates began their final debate on the question, the president of Mexico’s bishops’ conference, Carlos Aguiar, appeared in a paid TV spot urging the Court to rule that the abortion law was unconstitutional.

“Among the many challenges facing the country, respect for human life from conception is paramount. Without the gift of life, no other right is possible. The defence of the newly conceived human being must be accompanied by the defence of the dignity of women. Respect for the right to life forms the basis of true democracy,” the bishop said in the ad.

For its part, the administration of President Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) challenged the Mexico City law through the Attorney-General’s Office, using legal rather than religious arguments.

The National Human Rights Commission, a state body, also tried to get the law repealed, thus drawing harsh criticism from human rights activists.

But the arguments set forth by opponents of the law failed to convince the necessary majority of magistrates.

Supreme Court Justice Genaro Góngora said “there are no universally accepted and compellingly rational legal elements making it obligatory for the criminal justice system to defend the right to life of the product of conception before the 12th week of pregnancy.”

Justice José de Jesús Gudiño argued that “in the constitution there is not one single provision establishing the direct protection of the product of conception, independently of and against the will of the mother,” which means the decriminalisation of abortion is not unconstitutional.

By contrast, Justice Salvador Aguirre, who came out against the law, repeated on several occasions that it was not a question of penalising women but of safeguarding embryos, which in his view have been left without protection.

When the municipal law was passed in April 2007, surveys showed that although 40 percent of respondents were opposed to it, the decriminalisation of abortion enjoyed majority support, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Mexicans are Roman Catholic and the Church punishes the practice of abortion with excommunication.

While the draft law was being debated by the Mexico City assembly, Pope Benedict XVI urged the assembly-members not to approve it, sparking protests by the left that the Vatican was meddling in the domestic affairs of another state.

According to a UNAM study, up to one million illegal abortions a year — equivalent to 30 percent of all pregnancies — are performed in this country of 104 million people. But other sources put the number at less than 500,000.

Although abortion is legal in all of Mexico’s 32 states for victims of rape, studies show that in practice it is extremely difficult for a rape victim to exercise her legal right to terminate her pregnancy, because of an endless list of administrative hurdles and outright obstruction by the authorities.

In addition, 27 states allow the termination of pregnancy when the mother’s life is at risk, 13 allow it in the case of serious fetal deformities, and 10 permit it in order to protect the expectant mother’s health.

Studies also show that “back-alley” abortions are the fourth or fifth cause of death among women in Mexico, and that obtaining permission for a legal abortion in any of the abovementioned circumstances is difficult to impossible. (END/2008)

Mexico: City’s Abortion Law Is Upheld

by Elisabeth Malkin
(Published in: New York Times, August 28, 2008)

The Supreme Court upheld Mexico City’s abortion law by an 8-to-3 vote on Thursday, allowing unrestricted abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy. The ruling sets a legal precedent that will allow other states to liberalize their abortion laws if they choose. It was a defeat for the Roman Catholic Church and President Felipe Calderón’s conservative government, which filed the constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court. Mexico City, which passed the law in April 2007, is the only place in Latin America except for Cuba that allows unrestricted abortions in the first 12 weeks.
More Articles in World » A version of this article appeared in print on August 29, 2008, on page A8 of the New York edition.

Mexico City Struggles With Law on Abortion

by Elisabeth Malkin and Nacha Cattan (August 25, 2008, on page A5 of the New York edition)

MEXICO CITY — When Mexico City’s government made abortion legal last year, it also set out to make it available to any woman who asked for one. That includes the city’s poorest, who for years resorted to illegal clinics and midwives as wealthy women visited private doctors willing to quietly end unwanted pregnancies.

[Photo]Jennifer Szymaszek for The New York Times

Alejandra, 24, took pills to induce an abortion after staff members at a public hospital in Mexico City scared her out of undergoing the procedure there.

[photo below] Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press

Mexico demo: portraits of women who support abortion rights
Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press
A man looked at portraits of women who support abortion rights during a recent demonstration in Mexico City.

A man looked at portraits of women who support abortion rights during a recent demonstration in Mexico City.

But helping poor women gain equal access to the procedure has turned out to be almost as complicated as passing the law, a watershed event in this Catholic country and in a region where almost all countries severely restrict abortions.

Since the city’s legislature voted for the law in April 2007, some 85 percent of the gynecologists in the city’s public hospitals have declared themselves conscientious objectors. And women complain that even at those hospitals that perform abortions, staff members are often hostile, demeaning them and throwing up bureaucratic hurdles.

“We had to resolve how to offer the service on the fly,†said the city’s health secretary, Dr. Armando Ahued. “We were learning as we went along.â€

Now, even as the city’s left-wing government revamps its abortion services, the law is coming up against its biggest challenge — in the courts.

On Monday, Mexico’s Supreme Court begins public deliberations on a legal challenge that was filed last year by the conservative federal government and backed by anti-abortion groups. A decision could come as early as this week.

In a measure of the passions that the debate has aroused, the Supreme Court heard 40 speakers for and 40 against abortion during six public hearings that began in April.

To overturn the city’s law, which allows abortions during the first trimester, 8 of the 11 magistrates must vote against it.

The debate is unlikely to end with a court ruling. Anti-abortion groups have already said that they will push for a referendum if the court ruling goes against them, arguing that is a better way to decide such a momentous issue.

“It is a debate over absolutes,†said Armando Martínez, president of the College of Catholic Lawyers of Mexico. “It is an issue that is not really subject to debate.â€

In the rest of Mexico, states allow abortions only under limited circumstances, such as rape and incest, and Human Rights Watch reports that in practice such abortions are almost impossible to obtain.

Mexico City has ignored the philosophical battle, pushing ahead with plans that officials say will help them live up to the spirit of the law. “For the people with money, this was not a problem,†said Dr. Ahued, who sees the law as righting a wrong that put many poor women in jeopardy. “But for our people with no resources, what could they do? They went to clandestine clinics.â€

After so many doctors refused to perform abortions, the city hired four new doctors to help handle the load at the 14 city hospitals where the city initially offered abortions. Now 35 doctors offer the procedure in city medical facilities.

Because the city determined its service was not fast enough, it has trained doctors to use abortion pills when possible and perform speedier surgical procedures.

It is unclear how many women may have decided not to get abortions at the already overstretched public hospitals because it took too long to get appointments or because they had to wait too long for the required ultrasound.

Since unrestricted abortions became legal in April 2007, doctors have performed (or overseen when pills are used) some 12,500 of the procedures at public clinics and hospitals, according to the Health Ministry.

But at least some women have tried other methods.

Alejandra, 24, who works for the city’s women’s institute, said that when she went to get an abortion last year at a public hospital, a social worker there told her that she would need to pay for her own ultrasound, which is supposed to be free, and that she would need to be accompanied by a family member. Scared off by the description of the risks and the procedure, she fled the hospital.

She ended up taking pills to induce an abortion, without seeing a doctor, and developed a serious infection. She asked that only her first name be used because she said she recently received a death threat for speaking at a city event celebrating the new law. Another woman, a 27-year-old high school literature teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said her friends told her that they were treated like prostitutes at public hospitals. She also took abortion pills but said they were ineffective, requiring her to visit a doctor to complete her abortion.

To speed up treatment, officials are moving low-risk abortions out of overworked public hospitals into three smaller public clinics, based in part on models in Britain and the United States. The smaller staffs there should be more supportive, they hope.

On a recent morning at one of those clinics, called Beatriz Velasco de Alemán, in a working-class neighborhood, women waited with friends, husbands and boyfriends in a small courtyard, chatting, fiddling with their cellphones or staring into space.

Jennifer Szymaszek for The New York Times

Brenda Vélez campaigning against abortion in front of a clinic in Mexico City. She and two assistants also hand out pamphlets, but most of the battle on the issue plays out in the courts.

One 27-year-old married mother of two who had come to the clinic for an abortion saw no contradiction between her religion and abortion. “I’m Catholic but now the law has been passed,†she said as she went inside for her appointment.

There is one sign of opposition at the clinic. Brenda Vélez and two assistants from the anti-abortion group Pro Vida arrive every day at 11 a.m. to say the rosary and hand out pamphlets.

But unlike the very public battle over abortion in the United States, which is played out on the streets and through the news media, the two sides here have confined much of their argument to the courtroom.

Even the powerful Catholic Church, which threatened legislators with excommunication last year if they approved the law, has muted its political rhetoric. (In the end, the church did not kick any lawmakers out because of their votes.)

There have been a few public protests as the Supreme Court’s decision approaches, but neither side has mobilized massive forces. It is the doctors themselves who are on the front lines when it comes to choosing sides.

One gynecologist working at a public hospital, herself a new mother, said she was an objector because she was uncomfortable with interrupting life. Some women, she said, “are irresponsible because there are contraceptives.†She asked not to be identified.

Those who have chosen to perform abortions say it has not been easy. Dr. Laura García was the only one of 13 gynecologists at her hospital who agreed to offer abortions last year. Some days, she says, she performs as many as seven or eight surgical abortions.

“I became a warrior there defending my convictions,†said Dr. García, who moved to a new hospital in May where the city plans to have abortions performed for minors.

She said she had been insulted by colleagues and chased down the street by abortion opponents. But she said that having witnessed what happened to women before abortion became legal — she saw cases of septic shock and uncontrolled bleeding from botched abortions — helped her continue her work.

“I am contributing to rescuing women’s rights,†Dr. García said. “In Mexico, women have always been marginalized.â€

She added: “I am a Catholic, but I have convictions. I don’t think I’m going to hell. If I go, it will be for something else.â€