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Mexico decriminalizes abortion nationwide, but divisions still run deep among citizens

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — As U.S. states eye the new Texas template to effectively outlaw abortion, states in Mexico drove that country’s Supreme Court to decriminalize the practice nationwide Tuesday in a unanimous vote. The ruling (in Spanish) came after the state of Coahuila brought the issue to Mexico's highest court, aiming to become the country’s fifth state to declare the criminalization of abortion unconstitutional.

However, in a move made possible by recent judicial reforms, the unanimous vote led to decriminalization nationwide. 

Court President Arturo Zaldivar called the day “historic for all women [in Mexico], above all for the most vulnerable.” But the self-described “pro-life” activists protesting outside the court do not agree. 

Aidee Sanchez, a volunteer with the anti-abortion groups Salva Una Vida (Save A Life) and 40 Dias Por La Vida (40 Days For Life), held a sign reading “The true feminist would fight for the rights of women in the womb.” Sanchez describes herself as a feminist, equating abortion — even in the case of rape — as a “double rape.” She says that if Mexico had laws like those recently enacted in Texas, “I believe we would save many lives.”

Metal fencing and lines of police from multiple levels of government separate Sanchez and her cohort — who have been allowed to protest and pray just outside the entrance to the court — from those who have come to support the decriminalization of abortion. Francis Pirin is director of Anahuac Valley neighborhood women’s group who have been fighting for decriminalization for years. Paradoxically, she adamantly rejects the feminist label, both for herself and the conservative activists across the police line who claim to have appropriated it, but does apply it to the reason she and the other women have come to make their voices heard today.

“I don’t consider myself a feminist, but I am, obviously, in favor of gender equality,” she said, adding that neither is the anti-abortion cause a feminist one. “Of course it isn’t feminist. [Abortion] is a women’s issue.”

Both sides say their desire is to save women’s lives. Sanchez spoke of pregnant women entering abortion clinics in the city and states where it’s decriminalized and never coming out. When asked if the insinuation is that the women are dying in Mexican abortion clinics, she responds in the affirmative, but can point to no evidence to back up the claim.

The data, however, tell a much different story. The Mexico City government issued a statement in 2019 that the number of women who had died as a result of a botched abortion procedure was still at zero 12 years after the capital decriminalized the practice. Data published that same year by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) added another interesting plus for the abortion-rights side to cite: The rate of abortions in Mexico City, as well as the rate of women receiving repeat abortions, were much lower than estimates preceding the decriminalization in the capital in 2007.

Leticia Gonzalez Luna of the anti-abortion NGO Voz Publica (Public Voice), which bills itself on its Facebook page as an organization “born of the necessity of society to express itself and be heard by politicians,” categorically denies the UNAM data.

“The UNAM is wrong,” she said after a good laugh. “That data isn’t true.” When asked where she gets her data from, she said her organization goes to the clinics, then said the government keeps track of all the women who have died in abortion clinics — despite the aforementioned government communique attesting to not one death in a Mexico City abortion clinic.

After Mexico City in 2007, Oaxaca became the next state to decriminalize abortion over a decade later in September 2019. The country experienced a domino effect of decriminalizations state-by-state in 2021, beginning with Hidalgo in early July and Veracruz later that month. Coahuila joined the band when it brought its case to the Supreme Court in early September. 

The abortion debate is just as contentious south of the border as north. One side felt a significant loss with Tuesday’s ruling, but as the data reveal, it would appear that both sides will ironically get what they demand, even if some refuse to believe it.

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Cody Copeland/Courthouse News

Anti-abortion activists protest and pray outside Mexico's Supreme Court on Sept. 7, 2021, just before it voted to decriminalize abortion nationwide.