Rewire's Emily Douglas spoke with María Luisa Sánchez Fuentes, executive director of the Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (GIRE), or the Information Group on Reproductive Choice, about the "woman-made miracle" that took place in Mexico City in April 2007.
Emily Douglas: What was the status of abortion laws in Mexico City before your win last April, in which abortion was decriminalized until 12 weeks of gestation?
María Luisa Sánchez Fuentes: In Mexico, abortion was illegal and permitted under very limited circumstances. There were six exceptions to the law allowed in the country – rape, life, health, severe fetal anomalies, accidental abortion (a miscarriage), and insemination without consent.
ED: So those were the exceptions under which a woman could get an abortion in Mexico City. But now you've significantly liberalized abortion laws there.
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MLSF: Now we have liberalized abortion laws to include conscientious objection [as a grounds for seeking an abortion], and instead of criminalizing illegal abortions, we will now require community service for women who seek them. Women will no longer go to jail. The law also includes real sexuality education by the government and the law reinforces contraception and reproductive health services. So it's a very comprehensive law, a moderate law. And besides Mexico City, no other country in Latin American besides Guyana and Cuba has abortion on demand.
ED: It seems like this is a really radical shift for Mexico City, that suddenly women don't have to have an excuse to choose an abortion. Did you have to make specific political arguments to get people to understand that women should have the right to have an abortion regardless of what circumstances they were in?
MLSF: Several political factors came together in place at the right time, at the right moment. The feminist movement, the women's movement, has been putting abortion on the agenda for thirty years, and later, NGOs have professionalized working for abortion and put it on the public agenda. It's been placed as a social justice issue, a public health issue, a question of democracy, particularly for the secular state that Mexico has. Those arguments, combined with international trends and international treaties that the Mexican state has signed, like CEDAW, explain a legal argument on which we were able to build. We also had the UN and the WHO saying, women's rights are human rights. There have also been cases taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declaring it a torture and a high violence when women are denied access to abortion when the fetus is compromised.
Those arguments were very powerful because ultimately they pointed out the tremendous violence in forcing a woman to have a child she doesn't want to have. The legal framework was very, very important, as is being a secular state, in terms of separation of church and state. [In this respect,] Mexico is like the US, but unlike in the US, the [desire on behalf of Mexicans to be] secular is very strong.
ED: So people actually responded well when you pointed out that this was a way to further secularization?
MLSF: Absolutely, because the hierarchy of the Catholic church attacks the legislators, they use excommunication to punish any legislator who goes against their doctrine, so it is seen as very negative by the public. The interesting thing is that there was so much support from the media, national and international, and influential artists, movie stars, writing in favor of a change in the law. When the law was voted on the April 24th, we had more than two thirds of the legislature voting in favor of the law. So we had a lot of legitimacy, using the left-wing party. They tried to make a huge, open discussion and debate around the change in the law. After months of intense debate, it became clear that people were in favor of changing the law.
ED: I read on your website that you experienced some backlash since this win.
MLSF: Right after the law was approved, [opposing forces] had 30 days to attempt to get the Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional. So both the National Commission on Human Rights and the Attorney General presented to the Supreme Court asking for it to be declared unconstitutional. For the Attorney General, it was more a political gesture, because he is in the executive branch of government, and our President is anti-choice. The president says he will respect the decisions of the assembly, but he did try to use the AG's office to declare the law unconstitutional. This way he could appear neutral. It was clear when the AG's office presented the claim that behind the claim was the president.
And [abortion providers] have had no complications, and over 2000 abortions have been performed to date. Fourteen public hospitals provide the service.
ED: Do women from all over Mexico and all over Central America come to Mexico City for abortions? Is it legal for them to come from other regions and jurisdictions to seek abortion care?
MLSF: That is totally legal. Abortion services are free of charge for Mexico City residents. But if someone from another section of the country comes, they'll charge a fee reasonable for the person's economic and social standards, and they have also provided services for people from other countries.
ED: What has been the demographics of women seeking abortions in Mexico City thus far?
MLSF: Only six percent of those seeking abortion have been adolescent. Eighty percent are Catholic, and eighty-seven percent are school-educated women.
ED: Do you think that other regions in Mexico or Central America can follow Mexico City's lead, or is it an isolated area of progressivism? Can laws like this one spread to other places?
MLSF: We're moderately optimistic that the Supreme Court will rule in our favor. We have eight out of eleven votes in the Supreme Court, and after they rule, then the we will have the legal groundwork to change the law in other states. Their ruling will answer the question legally if abortion is a human rights issue, or not, if it is killing a baby, or not, whether a fetus is a person, or not – so with this final ruling from the Supreme Court, [anti-choice activists] won't have any legal argument in favor of criminalizing abortion. Then abortion legalization will depend totally on political will, and there will be strong legal arguments in its favor. Unless states can say, public opinion isn't ready, they won't have an argument. Otherwise, they are suggesting that they don't believe in the authority of the Supreme Court.
So we think some states are ripe for abortion, especially ones where the leftist party is in power.
ED: What about GIRE's organizing strategy might be applicable to the United States? What does the US need to learn from you?
MLSF: One thing that distinguishes Mexico from the US is that we have the right to health in our constitution. And that was a very strong argument. We've signed international treaties like the Economic, Social and Cultural Treaty, that the US hasn't signed, and the Civil and Political Rights Treaty, and under those we have the right not only to health but to health care services.
The other thing that was important was that though the US has a secular state, in Mexico we accept that we can all fit in, all live together in community, as long as we respect our personal beliefs and believe that people make individual moral and ethical decisions to have an abortion. And we're not going to step in the way of that, or let the Church step in the way of that. It requires putting aside our personal beliefs when legislating. That is the core issue for any country legalizing abortion.
And finally, we've also worked on preventing unplanned pregnancies, and collaborated closely with public officials on public policy reforms.
Learn more about GIRE's work at www.gire.org.mx.