How many abortions in Mexico?


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The weeks leading up to the April vote in Mexico City’s legislature to legalize abortion were filled with heated rhetoric. Several lawmakers and activists supporting the legalization law cited a 2005 study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM in Spanish) that estimated there were close to 1 million abortions performed in the country each year. Almost all of those abortions were illegal, and many were performed in underground clinics, causing untold women to lose their lives in botched surgeries. That study was often quoted (here, by Human Rights Watch) and I mentioned it in my story earlier this month on how 3,400 women had received legal abortions in Mexico City since the law took effect in May.

But blogger Dave Pierre has pointed out the obvious inconsistency between the actual number of legal abortions performed at Mexico City hospitals and that 1 million figure. If 3,400 women received legal abortions at Mexico City hospitals in six months, that adds up to only 6,800 per year. Mexico City is the only place where abortion on demand is legal in Mexico. But you could use that 6,800 figure to extrapolate the number of illegal abortions taking place in the rest of the country. If you consider that the Mexico City metropolitan region is home to almost 1 in 6 Mexicans (1 in 10 if you look at only the city proper) you could guess that there were about 40,000 to 68,000 abortions, legal and illegal, taking place in the entire country each year -- far less than 1 million.


There are, however, several problems with such an extrapolation. To begin with, Mexico City officials say there are several hundred women on the waiting list to receive abortions at public hospitals at any given time. But more important, the 3,400 figure is only for the public hospitals in Mexico -- and there are no figures I know of for abortions taking place in the city’s private hospitals and clinics. But even if there was a very long waiting list at the public hospitals, and even if there were two abortions taking place in private clinics for every one abortion in the public hospitals, and even if many women were still using herbs and store-bought pills to induce their own at-home abortions, that would still add up to only 25,000 or so abortions in Mexico City each year. And by extrapolation, not more than 250,000 in the entire country, legal and illegal in a year.

The exact number of abortions in a country where abortions remains largely illegal can probably never be known. But in light of Mexico City’s experience with legalized abortion, the 1-million figure appears too high.

Posted by Héctor Tobar in Mexico City