Responding to a Real Need: Liberalizing Mexico City's Abortion Law

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ALTHOUGH IN THE LAST decade there has been an international trend toward liberalizing abortion policy, in Latin America complex differences continue to exist between countries in the region. Since 2006, abortion has been permitted in Colombia when a woman's health is at risk, in the case of rape or incest and severe fetal impairment, whereas previously it had been prohibited without exception. During the same year, the Nicaraguan Congress left women to the "will of God" by banning abortion, even to save a woman's life. More recently in Mexico, in the midst of the most intense, wide-reaching public debate on abortion in its history, Mexico City's legislature voted to decriminalize abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The landmark reform was approved on April 24, 2007, by a two-thirds majority of the legislature, with support from five political parties. It not only decriminalizes abortion during the first trimester, but also reduced punishment for women who procure an abortion after this period. This inclusive bill also requires the Mexico City Ministry of Health (MOH) to provide legal abortion services, free of charge, to any woman who lives in Mexico City, even if she is covered by other public or private insurance, and at a moderate rate for women from other states of the country and foreigners. Moreover, this reform also guarantees sexuality education and campaigns on reproductive and sexual rights, the availability of contraceptive methods, and counseling for all women considering an abortion. These changes put Mexico City at the forefront of abortion liberalization in Latin America and the Caribbean, on par only with Cuba, Guyana and Puerto Rico, and represent a comprehensive approach to preventing unwanted pregnancies, while at the same time respecting women's right to decide.

CONTEXT AND STRATEGIES

The reform in Mexico City resulted from a combination of social and political factors that aligned at the right time and in the right place: a dominant, left-wing party in the Mexico City Legislature in an environment of political polarization between the left and right wing, an international human rights framework in favor of abortion rights and, above all, more than 35 years of consistent struggle by the feminist movement, the women's movement and allied civil society organizations to put abortion rights on the public agenda. Over the years, a broad range of perspectives on public health, bioethics, philosophy, human rights, social justice, and secular and Catholic prochoice arguments were developed in support of safe and legal abortion. Such diverse arguments helped prochoice advocates educate the public, the media, legislators, the health sector and the judicial branch about the complexity of the issue.

A gradual approach to harmonize abortion indications throughout the country was also critical. The recent reform cannot be explained without taking into account the reforms to the Mexico City Penal Code in 2000 and 2003, which incorporated other indications for legal abortion and regulated conscientious objection for the very first time in Mexico. (The 2000 and 2003 reforms decriminalized abortion when pregnancy threatens a woman's health, in the case of severe fetal malformation and nonconsensual artificial insemination. Prior to these reforms, accidental abortion, which refers to any unintended action that results in miscarriage, and abortion when pregnancy is a result of rape were not considered punishable offenses.) These changes had already put Mexico City at the vanguard of reproductive rights in Mexico at large.

The case of Paulina, a 13-year-old girl who was raped, became pregnant, was denied a legal abortion by public authorities and forced to carry her pregnancy to term was also important in this process. Paulina's case helped establish abortion rights as human rights when the Mexican state, in recognition that her rights had been violated, signed an agreement between her legal representatives, the Mexican state, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. …