The Politics of Women’s Reproductive Health in Mexico

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Like most of Latin America, Mexico outlawed abortion for most of the 20th century. However, research shows that Mexico’s laws were, and still are, more nuanced than they first appear. Dr. Caroline Beer, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont specializing in Mexican politics and women in politics, explains that the law in Mexico “rather than being something that people intend to enforce, is more aspirational.” As the country continues to explore a new democracy, leaders navigate the shadowy politics of women’s reproductive health in Mexico.

Contemporary Politics and Policies

Each of Mexico’s 32 states has legislation on the subject of women’s reproductive rights. States have autonomy over decisions that criminalize or legalize abortion, and many have explicitly exercised their power over the past decade. In 2007, Mexico City became the first sub-national government to decriminalize abortion if done within the first 12 weeks of the pregnancy. Following a supreme court case that unsuccessfully challenged this new legislation, 17 Mexican states responded to the verdict by cracking down on abortion. By 2013, these states had adopted constitutional amendments that protect life from the time of conception.

In 2019, the southern state of Oaxaca legalized abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, following Mexico City’s lead. The remaining 13 states that have not legalized or completely criminalized abortion are scattered on the spectrum. Each state has its own set of exceptions to the rule, some in the combination of the following: abortion is illegal except in the case of rape, if the life of the mother is at risk, if the fetus is severely malformed or if the economic circumstances of the mother do not warrant another child.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has proposed granting amnesties for women who have been prosecuted for abortions. “There is this constant hope among feminists that there will be more liberalization of abortion under his watch,” says Dr. Beer, “but nothing’s really happened.” According to Dr. Beer, President Lopez Obrador is rather ambivalent toward women’s reproductive health in Mexico.

The Decentralization of Abortion Law

Until recently, President Lopez Obrador was a member of the PRD, or the Party of the Democratic Revolution, a socialist party that emerged in 1989. Before the PRD existed, Mexico was controlled by a single party known as the PRI, or the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The PRI came into existence in 1929 after winning the Mexican Revolution, and under the party’s control, the federal penal code and states’ penal codes universally outlawed abortion. It was permitted if it saved the woman’s life or in the case of rape.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, abortion laws remained somewhat stagnant under the PRI. In the 1970s and 80s, roughly half of the Mexican states liberalized abortion laws, meaning that exemptions to the criminal code were expanded, although abortion was still technically illegal. This liberalization had little impact on women’s reproductive health in Mexico as the changes were not widely known by the population. The PRI allowed state legislatures to enact the changes as long as they did so quietly, to avoid conflict with the PAN, or Conservative Catholic Party, the rival to the PRI since the 1930s. “The PRI wanted [the laws]liberalized, but it didn’t want to antagonize the Catholic church,” says Dr. Beer.

The PAN won the presidential election in 2000, shifting Mexico’s political system from a centralized, top-down government to a democracy in which states had greater autonomy. Around the same time, abortion became a prominent national debate due to a publicized court case involving a rape victim. Furthermore, women’s rights organizations and conservative Catholic groups mobilized during the new democracy, escalating the dispute. When Mexico City legalized first-term abortion, the rift between the conservative party and the liberal party grew.

The Result of Prohibiting Abortion: Induced Abortion and Miscarriages

Despite the muddled politics of women’s reproductive health in Mexico, women themselves have continued to end pregnancies when needed. A study estimated the induced abortion rate in 2006 to be 3.3% of women aged 15-44 in Mexico. Another study finds that 149,700 women were hospitalized from complications following abortion procedures that same year. Across Latin America and the Caribbean, 95% of all abortions are conducted in unsafe conditions.

From 2001 to 2007, 62 legal abortions were performed in Mexico City. In the four years following Mexico City’s decriminalization, more than 89,000 legal abortions were completed. Data from 2012 indicate that roughly 2% of legal abortions during that time were “repeat abortions.” According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, laws prohibiting abortion do not limit the number of abortions that take place. Instead, they encourage women to seek out risky options, such as choosing to avoid public health care altogether. While interviewing women in Guanajuato, a conservative Mexican state, a New York Times reporter found that women who suffered miscarriages or pregnancy complications would often hesitate to go to a hospital, fearing an investigation that may lead to wrongful prosecution.

Abortion Laws Affecting Impoverished Women

A key feature of Mexico City’s legalization of abortion is its accessibility. Specialized abortion clinics in Mexico City offer their services for free to city residents. Low-income women are more likely to undergo unsafe abortions than middle-or-high-income women, so the new legislation helps protect women in poverty from unnecessary harm.

“Rich women can do whatever they want,” Dr. Beer notes. “For poor women to really have access to a safe abortion, it’s got to be free in a government-run clinic.” In 2018, 41.9% of the population lived in poverty. More women than men account for the most impoverished 40% of the country, and income inequality remains high. This year, estimates show that the pandemic has pushed another 16 million Mexicans into extreme poverty. Women’s reproductive health in Mexico has taken the backseat for nearly a century. Feminists in Mexico, including Secretary of the Interior Olga Sanchez Cordero, second in command to the president, plan to propel the conversation forward until a national resolution is reached.

– McKenna Black
Photo: Flickr

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