Mexico antiabortion forces swaying state legislatures


Abortion rights activists dreamed of legislative victories across Mexico after the Supreme Court last year upheld a Mexico City law allowing abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Instead, the opposite has happened.

In state after state, antiabortion forces have won changes to local constitutions declaring that life begins at conception and explicitly granting legal rights to the unborn. In all, 17 state legislatures have approved such measures, often with minimal debate, since the August 2008 court decision validating Mexico City’s law.

The Gulf coast state of Veracruz last month became the most recent state to do so. Its measure also called on the Mexican Congress to consider a similar amendment to the nation’s Constitution.


The flurry of state amendments has rattled abortion rights advocates, who say the measures in effect criminalize abortion in much of Mexico and will drive many women deep underground to terminate a pregnancy.

The leftist-dominated legislature of Mexico City, a federal district treated as a state, voted in April 2007 to allow abortions during the first trimester. Since then, nearly 34,000 women have undergone abortions in the capital, many after traveling from distant states.

Abortion is illegal outside Mexico City, except in some circumstances, but it is seldom prosecuted.

In their new laws, states have included provisions allowing exceptions in cases of rape or if the woman’s life is at risk, and to give judges the option of sending women to counseling instead of jail if convicted of undergoing an abortion. But abortion rights activists are not comforted.

“This is very offensive because they still treat women as if they are criminals,” said Maria Luisa Sanchez, director of a Mexican abortion rights group, GIRE.

Sanchez said women in states that have passed the laws might avoid seeking a doctor’s help after undergoing an abortion or if the procedure is incomplete.

“It’s going to be more clandestine than before,” she said.

Reproductive rights groups have sought to head off the laws by filing legal actions in state courts.

Abortion foes characterize their recent victories as a popular backlash against the Supreme Court ruling. They hope to persuade the Mexican Congress to approve similar changes at the federal level.

After the Mexico City rule was approved, lawmakers in many states “began to debate it and concluded that abortion goes against the rights of the person, against the woman,” said Jorge Serrano Limon, who heads an antiabortion group called Pro Vida. “It was a response. The response was pro-life legislation.”

The drive for stricter abortion laws has featured the Roman Catholic Church and the National Action Party of President Felipe Calderon. The party, known as the PAN, has a strong religious tilt and favors conservative social policies.

The surprise is that Mexico’s once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has been providing the votes needed to pass the new laws and, in a number of cases, leading the charge. The center-left PRI, which lost the presidency in 2000, has long touted its advocacy of women’s rights and the sanctity of church-state separation.

Political analysts and people on both sides of the abortion debate see election-year maneuvering at work in the PRI’s embrace of constitutional changes on abortion.

Daniel Lund, a Mexico City-based pollster and analyst, said the PRI is shifting rightward on abortion to deny the PAN possible votes on an issue that could mobilize a significant number of voters.

Thirteen states will hold elections in 2010; six of them have passed laws in recent months declaring that life begins at conception. A seventh, the northern state of Chihuahua, has had such a law on the books since 1994.

“The PRI is not going to leave the field to the PAN in those states,” Lund said. “They want to neutralize the issue.”

Although the abortion issue is pivotal to a fairly small segment of voters, that could affect turnout at the state level in off-year elections, Lund said.

Serrano said antiabortion advocates hoped to raise the profile of the issue during next year’s elections and in presidential balloting two years later. He said there could be more efforts in some of the remaining 14 states to pass laws granting legal rights from the moment of conception.

PRI lawmakers’ support for the recent measures has angered feminists and abortion rights activists, who accuse party leaders of trading principles for possible electoral advantage.

The criticism has especially targeted the PRI’s president, Beatriz Paredes, a former governor and self-described feminist who is mentioned from time to time as a possible presidential candidate.

“She’s lost a lot of respect,” said Sanchez, the abortion rights activist.

Paredes has said it is up to PRI legislators at the state level to decide how to vote on the volatile abortion issue.

“It’s clear that the issue divides the Mexican public and that the PRI delegation, which reflects that society, also has a divided position,” Paredes wrote in an opinion article last month. “The debate remains open.”