Mexico’s Landmark Abortion Decisions Were Like ‘Feminist Christmas’

Just days after Texas effectively outlawed abortion within its borders, Mexican feminists celebrated a historic abortion win.

Photo of woman and others relying after Mexico decriminalized abortion
"Even when we have had conservative justices and a movement to the right, politically, here in Mexico, we have always kept fighting," said Melissa Ayala, a lawyer who coordinates the litigation group at GIRE, one of Mexico’s leading reproductive justice organizations. Antonio Ojeda/Agencia Press South/Getty Images

Last week, the Mexican Supreme Court issued two major decisions in support of reproductive rights for its citizens. First, on September 7, the Court ruled that a person who has an abortion cannot be criminally prosecuted. Then two days later, the Court rejected the idea of “personhood” for an embryo or fetus.

For activists (like the ones we hosted for a panel event in March) who have spent years fighting for these kinds of changes in Mexico and around the globe, the Court’s decisions were nothing short of revolutionary.

“I still have goosebumps,” said Melissa Ayala, 29, a lawyer who coordinates the litigation group at GIRE, one of Mexico’s leading reproductive justice organizations. In the following conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, Ayala shares her thoughts on these historic legal rulings and what’s next in the fight for reproductive rights in Mexico.

Rewire News Group: Where were you when you heard about the first Supreme Court decision?

Melissa Ayala: I was in my house in Mexico City, with my 8-month-old son, who was sleeping. I was listening to the hearings, and then I screamed and woke him up! I told my husband, “From now on, no woman will be prosecuted for having an abortion.” I couldn’t believe it.

And then another groundbreaking decision two days later! What are the most important aspects of these rulings that you want people to know?

MA: The most important thing is that you can no longer be punished through the penal code for having an abortion—that when we are talking about abortion, we should not involve the criminal system, at least during the first trimester. Prosecuting women for abortion has a chilling effect; it was a statement from the state that there was always this shadow hanging over you that you might be going to prison if you had an abortion. So [a lot of] women didn’t have abortions that were completely safe because they were worried about it.

Then there was the quality of the argument. The justices were talking about women, yes, but also people with the ability to gestate—nonbinary people, transgender men. This is something I had never heard in other constitutional courts before.

What do you think have been the factors driving this progress?

MA: The fact that feminists are all over the place. We have been in the Supreme Court, in the law schools, in all the places where decisions are being made. And we are also in the streets demanding that our Congress advance these rights! Feminism is everywhere; seeing, for example, what happened in Argentina gave us fuel—what they did in the streets was gas for us to continue the fight.

Something else GIRE has worked on a lot is to tell stories about what happens to women who can’t have an abortion and how it impacts their lives. We’ve always presented the data and the statistics, but presenting the stories has been key. When you hear from a person who has gone through not wanting a child and see the consequences that denying abortion can have for that person, it makes a difference.

I got pregnant when I was 22 years old. My then-boyfriend—now husband—said to me, “I want to keep the baby but it’s up to you.” The fact that I could decide and have that choice was everything to me. I decided to have my daughter—she’s turning 7 in January—but being able to decide was life-changing, and I knew I wanted everyone to have that same ability without the shadow of going to prison. That’s why I have dedicated my life to fighting for other women to have this right.

And, of course, that fight now continues. What are some of the gaps in the Court’s decisions?

MA: What the Court didn’t deliver is the number of weeks—like 12 weeks, or first trimester—when a person can terminate an abortion. It only says that the person can’t be criminally punished. It leaves the time frame up to Congress or the states, but we’ve seen what happens in places where that’s the case—like Texas—so it’s tricky, and we’re a little afraid about that. Our next fight is to make sure all Mexican states guarantee abortion rights.

That’s a big challenge, given that recent polls continue to show the majority of Mexicans do not support legal abortion. Why do you think that is?

MA: A lot has to do with Mexico still being a very Catholic country. The Catholic Church still has a lot of power, and most Mexicans still believe that the fetus is a life that should be protected. However, I do believe there has been a change in the mindset, because there are now surveys that show even when someone thinks abortion shouldn’t be legalized, they don’t want people who terminate pregnancies to go to jail. That’s a breakthrough.

There are also a lot of men who say that they are allies, and call themselves feminists—so where are they in the conversation? Where all these allies talking about how they also got benefits from their partners having an abortion? We don’t see men talking about how abortion was good for their life, but we need to.

Earlier, you mentioned the reproductive rights rollback we’ve seen in Texas, which is likely to spread to other U.S. states. What would you say to your North American peers as they take on these new threats to reproductive freedom?

MA: The U.S. Supreme Court has always been a reference for us. When we were in law school, we read about the Warren Court [under Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1950s and ’60s], we read Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissents, and Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor’s. So now to see such a conservative Court scares us. But it also reminds us we cannot take any right for granted, because there will always be people with an anti-rights agenda looking for loopholes that will create obstacles for women.

My advice would be to remain hopeful because even when we have had conservative justices and a movement to the right, politically, here in Mexico, we have always kept fighting and presenting innovative arguments in our legal cases. We have been litigating for years! But all those smaller cases allowed us to have these big wins. One of the things RBG said before she died was, “Continue the fight.” So we continue the fight!