The abortion wars south of the border
Up a winding road in the hills of Guanajuato, a small city in the central Mexican state of the same name, sits the headquarters of Las Libres, a pro-choice group. Last month I went there to interview a 20-year-old woman who is on probation for having an abortion. The details of that interview appear in an upcoming piece, so I won’t repeat them all here. The basic facts are that she had a clandestine abortion, got sick, went to the hospital, and hospital staff turned her in to authorities. A month later, some men pulled up to her house in a van and took her away in handcuffs. Her probation term is nine and a half months.
According to Las Libres, around 60 women have been prosecuted in similar ways in Guanajuato. The group also says dozens more have been charged with homicide and imprisoned (the state attorney’s office denies this, and I haven’t been able to confirm it either way yet). Like in all Mexican states, Guanajuato restricts abortion except in the case of rape (some states also have other exemptions). But for years it was pretty much alone in prosecuting women. Now things are different.
In the last year, 15 out of 31 states have passed amendments that recognize embryos as people and grant them full constitutional rights. The state of Chihuahua, hardly a paragon of progress for women, was the first to pass this species of law back in 1994, bringing the current total to 16, or just a hair past half the country.
More than anything these amendments derive from paranoia. Mexico has no federal Roe v. Wade-type mandate. Even though the fourth article of the constitution says that citizens have the right to determine “the number and spacing” of their children, the states are basically free to legislate as they please on the issue. The standard rule has long been to outlaw abortion except for the rare instance of forced sex or possibly the endangered health of the mother. But that all changed when Mexico City decriminalized first-trimester abortions in 2007. The Supreme Court voted down a challenge to the law’s constitutionality a year later, in August 2008. Even though the ruling didn’t affect state law, that’s when the preventive “right to life” reforms began to pass.
Not only are they paranoid, the amendments are also contradictory. How can a state constitutionally guarantee a person rights from the moment of conception but also allow abortions for rape? Lawmakers are still working on that, though they say their motives are pure. They don’t want women going to prison; they just want to ensure that what happened in Mexico City doesn’t happen again. But it doesn’t seem far off for prosecutors to get into the anti-abortion spirit. Take the recent investigation into another 20-year-old woman in Puebla. It’s the first of its kind since the state passed the pro-life reform last March.