Protest in the Zócalo of Mexico City on September 28 demanding for the decriminalisation of abortion across the country. Credit: Balance A.C.
Almost two years ago, Ana* found out that she was pregnant. The now 26 year old suffers from lupus erythematosus and multiple sclerosis, both chronic diseases that affect her physical and mental health. “I could hardly look after myself, much less another baby,” she told me.
Already the mother of a then two-year old daughter, Ana decided to end her pregnancy. But she lives in the central Mexican state of Puebla, where abortion is restricted to cases of rape, if the woman’s life is in danger, or if there are serious birth defects or genetic disorders in the fetus.
A decade has passed since Mexico City decriminalised abortion, in 2007, following a long and hard-fought battle by feminist groups. A woman in the nation’s capital can choose to terminate a pregnancy up to its twelfth week.
But it remains a progressive island in a sea of conservative states – and the right to choose is threatened here too. Women still struggle to access abortion services, despite their decriminalisation. Anti-abortion groups are also increasingly active and visible.
'a progressive island in a sea of conservative states – and the right to choose is threatened here too'
In Ana’s case, she called a friend from high school who was studying in Mexico City, who told her about clinics in the capital where she could get an abortion. A group called Fondo de Aborto para la Justicia Social MARIA (“Fondo Maria”) helped her get there.
“It makes me sad remembering all this,” she said, describing her visit to the clinic, where she learned that the fetus also wasn’t developing properly. At home, she paid dearly for her choice to terminate the pregnancy; her parents kicked her out.
Ana's story is not unique in Mexico, where abortion is decriminalised in only one of the country’s 32 states: Mexico City. Since 2009, Fondo Maria has helped women with the financial and emotional costs of accessing abortion services in the capital.
“Social inequality already existed, because women in Mexico who have resources have always had access to services,” said Oriana López Uribe, former coordinator of Fondo Maria, and current executive director of Balance, a feminist civil society organisation.
“But when Mexico City decriminalised abortion, it created a situation of both socioeconomic and geographic inequality,” she told me. “Despite being from the same country... [being from] another state, certain women do not have access to abortion.”
“An unequal burden of domestic work impedes women from travelling,” López added, describing such “constant social control of the time and location of women by their family, their partner, even their community... that women cannot travel easily.”
March celebrating the 14th Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe (EFLAC) in Montevideo to protest gender-based violence. Credit: Balance A.C.
Only four Latin American and Caribbean states – Cuba, Guyana, Puerto Rico and Uruguay – have entirely decriminalised abortion, without restrictions. More than 97% of women of childbearing age in this region live in countries where abortion is restricted or banned entirely.
In Mexico, a federal country, laws differ between states. Abortion is legal in 24 states, for example, if the woman’s life is in danger; in 16 if serious birth defects or genetic disorders are identified in the fetus; in 14 if the woman’s health is threatened.
On paper, all 32 Mexican states permit abortion in cases of rape (if the assault is reported to authorities); only two allow it for socio-economic reasons (if the woman has a low income and already has three children).
According to government statistics, women from Mexico City had 70% of the country’s legal abortions over the last decade, followed by women from the neighbouring state Estado de México (25%). Women from Puebla accounted for just 0.6% of the total.
But even in Mexico City reproductive rights activists report steep challenges – from the 12-week limit in the capital’s current law, which they are pushing to extend, to the need to improve services at clinics, to threats from increasingly active anti-choice groups.
Abortion is supposed to be free in Mexico City, though in practice services and information about them aren’t always readily available. As a result some women face steep bills paying for such services privately. Ana said she had looked online and found that an abortion at a private clinic in the capital could cost 5,000-7,000 Mexican pesos (£190-265).
'Abortion is supposed to be free in Mexico City, though in practice services and information about them aren’t always readily available.'
Federal elections are coming up in Mexico in mid-2018, with the possibility that the centre-left Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), which has governed Mexico City for the last 20 years, may lose power and the right to choose in the capital may not be as well protected and defended politically.
Reproductive rights activists also warn that there are increasingly active and visible anti-abortion groups using more “specialised and personalised” tactics to target and pressure women accessing abortion services.
In one case: the Mexican civil society organisation Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (GIRE) went to the Supreme Court to contest the refusal of Hidalgo, a conservative state north of the capital, to allow an abortion for a pregnant minor who had been raped in 2014.
Jennifer Paine at GIRE said that the Supreme Court, as per its usual process, published an online record about the case, including the girl’s name. Subsequently, anti-rights groups then tracked her and her family down, offering them money to withdraw their case.
“This is the first time we have seen something like this,” Paine told me, calling it “a much more specialised and personalised strategy.” And it seemed to work: the family did withdraw the case (though it is not known whether or not they took the money).
"To me, they are terrorists, constantly generating fear."
López, at the civil society group Balance, says that after Mexico City decriminalised abortion, other states reacted by restricting rights locally. Anti-abortion groups like Vida y Familia (“Life and Family”) have become increasingly visible in the country, she added.
Some of these groups spread misinformation to “incite fear,” said López, giving as an example claims of a so-called “post-abortion” syndrome that causes women pain and guilt for the rest of their lives, leading to depression and suicide.
Both López and Paine separately told me about trucks parked outside clinics with anti-choice campaigners, dressed as clinic workers, harassing women entering facilities for abortion services.
Anti-abortion activists in Mexico have long had international allies. ADF International, the global wing of a controversial US Christian 'legal army', has for years intervened in Mexican court cases against reproductive rights.
In April 2017, a boat from Dutch NGO Women on Waves arrived on Mexico’s coast, providing abortion services onboard, in international waters. CitizenGo responded with a petition to the Mexican president, and military officials, calling the ship’s presence “an attack on national sovereignty.”
Anti-rights groups “incite fear so that women do not go through with abortions, that is their strategy,” said López. “To me, they are terrorists, constantly generating fear.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities.