In Mex­ico, Pow­er­ful Forces Drive a Fu­ri­ous De­bate Over Abor­tion

Catholic Church Fights Leg­is­la­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Manuel Roig-Franzia

MEX­ICO CITY — The young wo­man with the cas­cad­ing curls walked into a dumpy house with no sign out front on the day she de­cided to get an abor­tion.

Inside, she says, she paid $200 for eight sy­ringes filled with a milky liq­uid and a set of in­struc­tions. She spent the night in a Mex­ico City ho­tel room, giv­ing her­self in­jec­tions that made her bleed and cry out in agony.

The next day, weak and de­pressed, the wo­man was per­suaded by her sis­ter to see a doc­tor, who de­ter­mined that she had un­der­gone an in­com­plete abor­tion, the wo­man said dur­ing an in­ter­view on con­di­tion of anonymity. He con­ducted an emer­gency pro­ce­dure to com­plete the abor­tion and stave off in­fec­tion.

“What have I done?” she re­called think­ing. “I risked my life.”

The wo­man and tens of thou­sands like her who un­dergo il­le­gal abor­tions in Mex­ico each year are at the nexus of a fu­ri­ous cul­tural de­bate grip­ping this na­tion, which al­lows abor­tion only in lim­ited cases, in­clud­ing rape and when the mother’s life is in dan­ger. Abor­tion op­po­nents cite cases such as hers as ev­i­dence that abor­tion should be fur­ther cur­tailed; abor­tion rights ad­vo­cates ar­gue that the pro­ce­dure should be de­crim­i­nal­ized so that women have ac­cess to safe abor­tions.

The de­bate has been ig­nited by two pro­pos­als to ex­pand ac­cess to abor­tions in this over­whelm­ingly Catholic coun­try, con­sid­ered a re­gional trend­set­ter on so­cial is­sues. Mex­ico City’s leg­is­la­ture is widely ex­pected to ap­prove a law on April 24 that would de­crim­i­nal­ize abor­tion and al­low the pro­ce­dure dur­ing the first 12 weeks of preg­nancy. A sim­i­lar pro­posal has been filed in the Mex­i­can Congress.

The is­sue has set off a clash be­tween pow­er­ful forces. On one side are fem­i­nists and the left-lean­ing politi­cians who have strength­ened their con­trol of Mex­ico City’s gov­ern­ment. On the other side is the Catholic Church, which failed to stop le­gal­iza­tion of gay civil unions in Mex­ico City and the north­ern state of Coahuila in re­cent months.

“The Catholic Church has lost a lot of in­flu­ence as Mex­i­cans have be- come more aware of their rights as cit­i­zens and not just their rights as bap­tized Catholics,” said Mario Canseco, who grew up in Mex­ico City and is global stud­ies di­rec­tor at An­gus Reid Global Mon­i­tor, a re­search group that tracks pub­lic opin­ion. “The church, es­pe­cially the rural priests, once dom­i­nated when it came to so­cial de­ci­sions, but that’s not the case any­more.”

The topic of abor­tion has been the fo­cus of fre­quent Sun­day ser­mons and me­dia at­ten­tion in Mex­ico City for weeks. Church lead­ers have threat­ened to ex­com­mu­ni­cate Catholic law­mak­ers who vote to ex­pand ac­cess to abor­tion. A lead­ing abor­tion op­po­nent, Jorge Ser­rano Limón, has called Mex­ico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who sup­ports the abor­tion pro­posal, “a fas­cist.” On Tues­day, fem­i­nists struck back, taunt­ing Ser­rano Limón at a pub­lic ap­pear­ance by slip­ping out of their bras and wav­ing them at him.

A num­ber of abor­tion fights are play­ing out across Latin Amer­ica, where Cuba and Guyana are the only coun­tries that al­low wide ac­cess to the pro­ce­dure. Nicaragua’s Supreme Court re­cently agreed to hear an ap­peal of an abor­tion ban passed last year. The first le­gal abor­tion in Colom­bia was per­formed in Au­gust.

Mean­while, sug­ges­tions of ex­pand­ing ac­cess to abor­tion have been met un­fa­vor­ably in Brazil, the only coun­try with more Catholics than Mex­ico. A March poll showed that just 10 per­cent of Brazil­ians want the pro­ce­dure de­crim­i­nal­ized.

Much as in the United States in the 1960s, in Mex­ico it is the state leg­is­la­tures that have be­come abor­tion flash points. Abor­tion rights ad­vo­cates scored their big­gest vic­tory in 2000 in the state of Yu­catan, north­west of Can­cun. Yu­catan now al­lows abor­tions for women who al­ready have three chil­dren and can prove that they can­not af­ford an­other child. All Mex­i­can states per­mit abor­tions for rape vic­tims, though a study by Hu­man Rights Watch found that lo­cal of­fi­cials fre­quently find ways to deny the pro­ce­dures.

The pro­posed law in Mex­ico City, which is a fed­eral dis­trict and func­tions much like a state, is po­ten­tially broader than the law in Yu­catan. The mea­sure would per­mit abor­tions in the first trimester of preg­nancy if hav­ing a child would be “in­com­pat­i­ble” with a wo­man’s “life project,” a stan­dard that could al­low abor­tions for preg­nant women who don’t want to in­ter­rupt school or work. It is backed by the Demo­cratic Revo­lu­tion­ary Party, or PRD, which holds a large ma­jor­ity in the city leg­is­la­ture.

The na­tional leg­is­la­tion, also spon­sored by the PRD, faces a more dif­fi­cult chal­lenge be­cause the rul­ing Na­tional Ac­tion Party, or PAN, staunchly op­poses abor­tion. Pres­i­dent Felipe Calderón said in an in­ter­view last month that he con­sid­ers the cur­rent law “ad­e­quate” and would op­pose changes.

In this na­tion, the church has mounted an ag­gres­sive cam­paign against the abor­tion pro­pos­als. Led by the church hi­er­ar­chy, thou­sands of demon­stra­tors waved ban­ners ear­lier this month de­cry­ing “a cul­ture of death” while march­ing to Mex­ico City’s Basil­ica de Guadalupe, one of the Catholic world’s holi­est shrines. The Vat­i­can also dis­patched its top an­tiabor­tion cam­paigner, Car­di­nal Al­fonso López Tru­jillo, to Mex­ico City. Mex­ico’s high­est-rank­ing Catholic, Car­di­nal Nor­berto Rivera, has re­peat­edly crit­i­cized the abor­tion pro­pos­als dur­ing ser­mons and de­scribed abor­tion as “an abom­inable crime.”

Mex­ico out­lawed abor­tion in 1931. But it cre­ated an ex­cep­tion, al­low­ing abor­tions for rape vic­tims. The law did not set a cut­off date for the pro­ce­dure, mean­ing those women can have abor­tions at any time, even eight months into a preg­nancy. Sen. Pablo Gómez, spon­sor of the na­tional abor­tion pro­posal, likes to point out that Mex­ico for decades had a less re­stric­tive abor­tion law than the state of North Carolina, which didn’t le­gal­ize abor­tion un­til the 1960s.

There are few abor­tion prose­cu­tions in Mex­ico, where a univer­sity study es­ti­mated there are 1 mil­lion abor­tions a year. The rich ei­ther go to the United States for abor­tions or to private clin­ics in Mex­ico, where their doc­tors are the sole judges of whether the pro­ce­dure fits the pa­ram­e­ters of the law. The poor, who can sel­dom get abor­tions at pub­lic hos­pi­tals, go to what crit­ics re­fer to as back-al­ley “char­la­tans,” who openly ad­ver­tise their ser­vices.

“Abor­tion has been pri­va­tized in Mex­ico,” Gómez said in an in­ter- view. “It’s a bad joke.”

Abor­tion rights ac­tivists say as many as 3,000 deaths in Mex­ico each year are due to botched abor­tions, mak­ing it the fifth-lead­ing cause of death among women. As many as 10,000 women a year are hos­pi­tal­ized be­cause of com­pli­ca­tions from abor­tions, ac­tivists say.

Both sides are flood­ing ra­dio and television with ad­ver­tis­ing. The Mex­ico City leg­is­la­ture, whose PRD ma­jor­ity says the Catholic Church is vi­o­lat­ing Mex­i­can law by get­ting in­volved in the po­lit­i­cal de­bate, is plac­ing 30,000 trip­ty­chs around the city to ex­plain the pro­posed law. In an in­ter­view, Ser­rano Limón said his or­ga­ni­za­tion, Pro-Life, is spend­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars on ad­ver­tis­ing, in­clud­ing posters of Mayor Ebrard with aborted fe­tuses.

An­tiabor­tion ac­tivists have en­listed one of Mex­ico’s most fa­mous co­me­di­ans, Roberto Gómez Bo­laños, bet­ter known as Ch­es­pir­ito of the television show “El Cha­pulin Colorado” — or “The Red Grasshop­per.” He ap­pears in fre­quent television ads, say­ing his mother re­fused doc­tors’ ad­vice to un­dergo an abor­tion. Abor­tion rights ad­vo­cates coun­tered with ad­ver­tise­ments star­ring Paulina Ramírez Jac­inta, a rape vic­tim whose case be­came an in­ter­na­tional sym­bol in 2000. De­spite a law al­low­ing abor­tions for rape vic­tims in the city of Mex­i­cali, lo­cal of­fi­cials re­fused to per­mit one and she was forced to have the baby.

“How nice that Ch­es­pir­ito’s mother was al­lowed to de­cide,” Ramírez Jac­inta, now 21, says into the cam­era. “My fam­ily and I also would have liked to be able to de­cide.”


An an­tiabor­tion demon­stra­tor joins a protest out­side Mex­ico City’s leg­is­la­ture last month over a mea­sure that would de­crim­i­nal­ize abor­tion.


Abor­tion rights sup­port­ers also marched in Mex­ico City last month. Like the city, the Na­tional Congress is con­sid­er­ing widen­ing ac­cess to the pro­ce­dure.

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