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A choice in Mexico

LAST YEAR, Human Rights Watch documented the case of a 16-year-old girl from the Mexican state of Guanajuato who was repeatedly raped by her father over the course of a year. She became pregnant and begged authorities to allow her to get an abortion; even Mexico’s deeply restrictive reproductive laws allow abortions in cases of rape. But prosecutors reduced the charge against the father to incest, which does not qualify as a legal exception, so the girl was forced to carry her child-sibling to term.

The laws regulating sexuality in Mexico, the world’s second-most-populous Catholic nation, are more discriminatory toward women than most people realize. Which is why Mexico City’s decision this week to legalize abortions during the first three months of pregnancy marks such an important change. It’s estimated that up to 1 million Mexican women seek abortions every year, yet the procedure is safe and available only for the wealthy. Thousands of poor women die every year because of black-market remedies and back-alley operations.

In Mexico, much of the social policy is set individually across the country’s 31 states. Mexico’s capital is a federal district that functions like a state, similar to Washington, D.C. As a result of Tuesday’s 46-19 vote by municipal lawmakers, legal abortions will be available not only to the city’s 8 million residents but to anyone able to travel there. Such a safety valve will save lives and ease misery nationwide. In the rest of the country — like all of Latin America except for Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guyana — reproductive rights are among the most restrictive in the world.

Mexico’s federal government officially allows abortions if a woman’s life is in danger or if she has been raped, but actually getting the procedure done can be prohibitively difficult for the poor. Rape victims are often treated dismissively or openly humiliated by the justice system, so few women have the courage to report the crime — disqualifying them from a legal abortion should they become pregnant.

As in the case of the teenager from Guanajuato, rape charges are often reduced to lesser crimes by prosecutors reluctant to approve abortions for pregnant victims. Even those who go through all the proper steps are often thwarted by bureaucracies that delay the abortion until it’s medically too late.

The Mexico City vote won’t change all of that, but it will provide real relief to the women of a nation who badly need it.


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