Valeria, a 17-year-old girl skateboarding with her friends on the boardwalk in Veracruz, on the south-eastern coast of Mexico, is enthusiastic about recent legal changes that have decriminalised abortion in her state.
“I totally agree with it. Every woman should be able to decide about her body and not have to go to jail,” she told me, explaining how she’s also seen first-hand how the criminalisation of abortion can threaten the health and lives of women and girls.
One of her friends had an abortion before it was legalised, she said. “It was very unsafe because proper methods weren’t used [...] She suffered a lot, and couldn't even go to a clinic because she didn't have enough money.”
In the US, women are facing new threats to abortion rights at state level, but south of the border in Mexico – the second most populous Latin American country, with 128 million people – they are winning these rights, state by state.
Young women and girls such as Valeria have been at the forefront of new grassroots street protests for abortion rights across the region.
In Mexico, Isabel Fulda, deputy director of the sexual and reproductive rights group GIRE, says an increase in street activism has been a major driving force for change – along with political dialogue and pressure on policymakers.
Support for the ‘green wave’ abortion rights movement, which started in Argentina and then spread across Latin America, has been crucial
There’s no single ‘recipe’ for progress on abortion rights, says Fulda, but “support for the ‘green wave’ [grassroots movement for legal abortion], which started in Argentina and then spread across Latin America, has been crucial.”
Over the last five years, Fulda adds, new “groups, support networks and green wave cells” have emerged across Mexico, along with “women who mobilise and demonstrate in places that had never seen marches for abortion before”.
Alongside such on-the-ground activism, she credits “political work to build consensus in parliaments” with recent changes in favour of legal abortion. “You need to talk to legislators and authorities, clarify doubts, and provide technical support,” she says.
A state-by-state fight
In July, Veracruz became the fourth state in Mexico to legalise abortion, following years of protests by women’s groups and feminist collectives.
Hidalgo state also legalised abortion this year, following in the footsteps of Oaxaca (2019) and Mexico City (2007). A fifth state, Baja California, on the border with the US, followed suit in October. Women and girls in these areas now have access to safe medical terminations for any reason up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. However, this has limited impact overall: only 23% of Mexico’s population lives in these states.
Recent judgements from the Mexico’s Supreme Court – which recognise the reproductive rights of pregnant people; invalidate a federal law that allowed medical staff to ‘conscientiously object’ to performing abortions; and determine that criminalising abortion is unconstitutional – have also created new openings for change.
But what happens at the state level is still crucial. While public health is an issue that falls under the purview of the federal government, criminal law is almost exclusively a state-level matter. Activists expect that they will have to continue to fight, state by state, to ensure these Supreme Court rulings trickle down.
In order to change the lives of women and girls on the ground, each of Mexico’s 32 states will have to enact local laws reflecting the Supreme Court rulings.
State courts should now review cases of women who have been imprisoned for abortion-related crimes. Legislative bodies in 27 states should also start reviewing and revising their penal codes to allow for legal abortions.
Most of these penal codes already consider at least one circumstance under which abortions can be authorised, such as rape, health risks for the woman, severe foetal impairments, artificial insemination without consent or even financial hardship.
Obstacles to accessing legal abortion include conservative interpretations of laws, and doctors being allowed to object to procedures on moral grounds. Right-wing politicians, conservative medical professionals and hardline Catholic groups are expected to continue trying to limit abortion rights.
Patty Villanueva is a regular face at women’s rights demonstrations in Veracruz, the port city in the state of the same name, where she lives and runs a small corner shop.
She is among many whose support for legal abortion is also influenced by experience: in her case, of helping her 13-year-old niece who had an unwanted pregnancy. She gave her misoprostol (a pill widely used for medical abortions), but there were complications and they faced legal risks when going to a hospital for help.
Research from the Guttmacher Institute estimates that more than half of unplanned pregnancies in Mexico end in abortion (legal or otherwise), and 38 in every 1,000 women will have an abortion at some point.
But an estimated 80% of the population identifies as Catholic, and abortion is still a divisive issue – despite recent developments. Physician and feminist activist Ana Irene Muro Lagunes, who also lives in Veracruz, said: “The Catholic Church is misogynistic [... and] has a lot to do with the problems we face.”
Women need to show up to the hospital with a copy of the law in their hands and demand access to their rights
On-the-ground change requires increasing access to information, not just access to services, argues Muro Lagunes. This means getting the word out to communities as well as healthcare providers and other government workers about the new law allowing for legal terminations in Veracruz state.
"Women need to show up to the hospital with a copy of the law in their hands and demand access to their rights,” she said, because they can’t rely on healthcare providers to be fully aware of the law themselves, or supportive of it.
In some states, such as Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico, not far from Veracruz, activists say there are new opportunities for progress after recent elections removed right-wing leaders.
“For 60 years we had the same [centre-Right] party in power at the state level,” said Isabel Rodríguez from Red de Mujeres y Hombres and an advocate for sexual and reproductive rights in Campeche. Now, she said: “We have three years with this new congress, and we will make it count.”
But more coordination, pressure, resources – and time – are required to ensure that every woman and girl in Mexico has the right to decide what happens to their own bodies, Muro Lagunes and other reproductive rights advocates agreed.
"It's going slowly, but it's going,” she said, adding that “there is a global movement of women” demanding abortion rights for all “that we are a small part of.”
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