Mexico activists celebrate abortion ruling as a sign of culture change

Activists in Mexico have hailed a supreme court decision to decriminalize abortion, saying it would stop the legal prosecution of women who terminate their pregnancies – and those reported to the authorities after suffering miscarriages.

The decision, handed down unanimously on Tuesday, declared that criminal sanctions for abortion in the northern state of Coahuila were unconstitutional. The decision sets precedent, according to lawyers involved in abortion cases, and will be applicable across the country.

The ruling came just days after the US supreme court refused to block a near-total ban on abortion in Texas, and has prompted speculation that women in the US state may head across the border to seek terminations.

On Wednesday, one Mexican state governor announced he would release all women imprisoned for having abortions.

Coahuila Governor Miguel Riquelme said in a statement “the resolution will have retroactive effects, and if there is any woman deprived of her freedom for the crime of abortion, she must be released immediately.”

A government spokesperson was uncertain how many women would be released, while a local activist said she was unaware of any women incarcerated for aborting in the state over the past 25 years.

But activists and lawyers say the ruling is likely to bring about a change in legal culture and fewer criminal investigations, as the justices based their decision on human rights arguments and a woman’s right to decide rather than on legal technicalities.

“The reality is that women are not tried for abortion. Women are tried for homicide,” said Karla Michelle Salas, a lawyer representing women charged with abortion-related crimes.

“What prosecutors do, especially in the most conservative states, is charge women with homicide,” Salas said.

In one such case, Salas represented a woman from Querétaro state, Dafne McPherson, who suffered a miscarriage in the bathroom of the department store where she worked. McPherson was charged with having an abortion and later homicide. She was sentenced to 16 years in prison, but released on appeal after three years.

Salas explained that many states reacted to the decriminalisation of abortion in Mexico City in 2007 with constitutional amendments declaring that “life begins at conception” – and laid charges accordingly.

Mexico’s supreme court is expected to rule shortly on state-level constitutional amendments.

An analysis in the magazine Nexos by GIRE, a reproductive rights organisation, said the court will debate a motion from justice Alfredo Gutiérrez Ortiz Mena, which proposes “states cannot use the existence clauses (proclaiming) protection of life from conception as a pretext to deny people all types of services related to sexual and reproductive health.”

In the past two years, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Hidalgo followed Mexico City’s precedent and decriminalized abortion, but activists say elective abortions are still difficult to obtain in those states because medical workers refuse to make the procedure available.

“That’s where we have the problems: it’s in the law but they continue not providing public services because they put conscientious objections ahead of everything else,” said Verónica Cruz, founder of Las Libres, a nongovernmental group in Guanajuato state, which has worked to free women in prison for miscarriages and abortions.

The supreme court is scheduled to discuss the issue of conscientious objections on Thursday, according to the court’s press office.

“Abortion services have always existed, but it’s selective,” Cruz said, explaining that women with money pay for clandestine abortions or travel to places where it’s legal. Others buy pharmaceuticals like misoprostol, which is sold cheaply without a prescription in Mexico, and abort at home – often with the assistance of collectives that assist women in the procedure.

Cruz said women remain incarcerated for aborting, but noted, “The government itself doesn’t know where these women are” due to Mexico’s “disaster” of a public records system.

Activists say women could crossover from Texas – where new laws restrict abortion to about the first six of pregnancy – to neighbouring Coahuila, as medical tourism is common. Some saw irony in the situation, though.

“We used to go to Texas or Mexico City,” said Jackie Campbell, women’s rights activist in Saltillo, capital of Coahuila. “Now we don’t have to leave to have this right.”

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