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Abortion Settlement Awarded in Mexico

Times Staff Writer

Mexican officials said Tuesday that they would pay a legal settlement to a woman who was prevented from having an abortion after being raped at the age of 13, a decision hailed by women’s rights groups as a landmark victory.

In Mexico, only rape victims or women whose lives are at risk are allowed to obtain abortions. But such women have faced innumerable bureaucratic, legal and cultural obstacles when trying to exercise that right in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country.

The settlement calls for the victim to be paid about $40,000 in legal and medical fees and reparations. The victim, who is now 19 and raising her son as a single mother, will also receive a government stipend for the child’s education through high school.

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In addition, Mexican federal and state officials agreed to take steps to ensure that prosecutors and healthcare workers comply with laws that guarantee rape victims’ right to abortion.

“This is a triumph for all women,” said Marta Lamas, one of Mexico’s leading feminists and founder of the nonprofit Reproductive Choice Information Group. “After six years, the government has finally acknowledged that it denied this young woman her rights.”

A spokeswoman for the Mexican Foreign Ministry confirmed Tuesday that the government had reached the agreement with the rape victim and would pay the reparations but offered no other comment.

Over the years, the case has provoked a divided response across Mexico.

“Human life in any situation or condition must be respected,” Norberto Rivera Carrera, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Mexico City, said in 2000. “That child doesn’t deserve to die just because he was the product of a rape.”

Mexico, along with many other Latin American countries, has strict abortion laws. Teenagers raped by family members are not allowed to seek abortions -- in most Mexican states, the law defines incest as consensual sex. In addition, 12 is the legal age for consensual sex in most of Mexico.

In the U.S., South Dakota this week enacted a law forbidding all abortions including the few performed in cases of rape and incest. The only exception under the new ban -- which directly challenges the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision -- is in cases in which doctors determine an abortion is necessary to save a mother’s life. Roe vs. Wade established abortion as a constitutional right.

The case of 13-year-old Paulina Ramirez, raped by a heroin addict in her Mexicali home, garnered international attention when it was reported in 1999.

Ramirez and her mother sought a legal abortion, but numerous Baja California state officials and public healthcare workers pressured her to carry her pregnancy to term.

Antiabortion activists visited Ramirez at the hospital, showing her pictures of aborted fetuses in a bid to persuade her to change her mind. The Baja California state attorney general drove her to see a priest who told her abortion was a sin.

Ramirez’s son was born in 2000. Ramirez has spoken publicly about the case, and women’s rights groups in the United States and Mexico have taken it up. They sued in local courts with little success.

In 2002 they filed a petition seeking redress with the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an international tribunal whose authority is recognized by Mexico.

In the agreement, the Mexican government recognized that Baja state officials violated federal law.

“This is the most important legal victory for women in Mexico in a decade,” said Luisa Cabal of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the groups that represented Ramirez before the tribunal.

Cuba is the only Latin American country allowing abortion on demand. Other nations in the region allow abortion only in cases of rape or when the woman’s life is at risk.

But “even in those places in Latin America ... women are denied access because of the religious beliefs of health providers,” Cabal said.

The settlement is scheduled to be signed by Baja state representatives and Mexico’s federal government today, which is International Women’s Day. In announcing the settlement at a Mexico City news conference, New York-based Human Rights Watch also reported the results of a study on the difficulties Mexican rape victims faced in seeking legal abortions. Titled “The Second Assault,” the report detailed the stories of numerous rape victims who were cajoled, intimidated and threatened into carrying their pregnancies to term.

The law that allows victims of rape to obtain legal abortions “is broadly supported by the Mexican people, but it is a right that is rarely respected in practice,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

“Many pregnant rape victims are essentially assaulted twice,” Roth said, “first by their rapist and second by public officials who ignore them, insult them and deny them their right to a legal abortion.”

Investigators from Human Rights Watch cited the case of a 25-year-old Mexico City woman told by health workers to order a coffin and call a hearse to take away her aborted fetus.

Human Rights Watch investigators also interviewed a 16-year-old girl in the central state of Guanajuato who was repeatedly raped by her father. She begged authorities to allow her to have an abortion but was denied.

“I want to declare that I don’t want to have the child that I am expecting,” she said, according to court documents quoted in the report. “Because it is my father’s, I will not be able to love it.”

Aurora del Rio, a top official with the federal Health Department, said she agreed with most of the studies’ findings. “We have made progress in the past five years, but there is still much work to be done,” she said.

Women seeking abortions must first file a legal complaint against the rapist, then obtain a court order authorizing doctors to perform the procedure. In Mexico City, regulations require the rape victim to be photographed before and after the abortion, a requirement that women’s groups call a deliberate attempt to humiliate.

In recent years, Mexico City officials and women’s rights groups joined in an extensive publicity campaign to inform women of their rights to an abortion in the event of rape. Nevertheless, only 25 women sought legally sanctioned abortions in Mexico City last year.

Lamas, the Mexico City feminist, considered even that figure a step forward. The year before the campaign was launched, only five rape victims in the city of 9 million people sought legal abortions, she said.

Estimates of the annual number of illegal abortions here range from 600,000 to 1 million.

“We feminists have been fighting for legal abortion in Mexico for 35 years,” Lamas said Tuesday. Full reproductive choice in Mexico is a long way off, she said. “This is a task that will take us another 35 years.”

Federal health officials say at least 1,000 women die of medical complications from illegal abortions every year.

Mexico’s center-right government is split over the issue. Last year, two Cabinet ministers in the government of President Vicente Fox clashed publicly over whether hospitals here would be allowed to distribute the “morning-after” pill.

Health Secretary Julio Frenk determined that use of the pill did not constitute abortion. But in response to protests from antiabortion groups, Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal, a devout Catholic, said the principle of “the defense of life” would not allow the pill’s distribution. The health secretary eventually prevailed.

Presidential candidate Felipe Calderon of the ruling National Action Party has said that, if elected, he would withdraw the morning-after pill from hospitals. In response, large groups of young protesters have shown up at his campaign appearances with signs declaring, “Yes to the Pill!”


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