Reproduction Rights in Mexico
By Dr. Olga Magdalena Lazín
UCLA Post-Doctoral Fellow
Mexico’s total population exceeds ninety two million people. Of those, over half are women and fifteen percent of those women are illiterate. It is amazing then, in a country where women number more than half the inhabitants, that services, education, employment and human rights, where concerned with the welfare of women, are at their lowest level. The use of contraception, while on the rise, still has much to gain in terms of popularity and acceptance in Mexico. If women are aware of contraception, it is unlikely the men in their lives – husbands, politicians, doctors, lawyers, church officials – will allow the use of it.
Condom use in men is even harder to track. The infamous machista culture of Mexican men is hard to erode even in the twenty-first century.
In fact, during his 1999 visit, the Pope, who stated prior to his visit his belief that defense of human dignity is essential for world peace - he called it the foundation, did not discuss the failure of Mexico to meet basic human rights for women in the area of reproductive health. It is such dismissal and disregard that allows the continuing degradation, inequality, and deaths of women.
Mexico’s abortion rights have been characterized as “strictly for the books.” (Farmer). Although abortion is illegal in Mexico, most Mexican states establish criteria allowing abortions without fear of penalty. These criteria, which vary by state, include unintentional abortion or that caused by negligence, pregnancies caused by rape or non-consensual insemination, and medical necessity to save the life or health of the woman. One state goes so far as to allow abortion for serious economic reasons as long as the woman already has three children. Even with these exclusions from abortion as a crime, the reality in terms of obtaining an abortion is harsh. Doctors, who are punished for performing abortions and therefore usually abstain from them, are not trained. Those that have some training frequently do not keep up to date with new medical findings.
Consider the case of Paulina, fourteen, from Mexico D. F. . Raped by a burglar, it was legal for her to receive an abortion. Supported by her mother Maria Elena, she went to the hospital for the procedure. Once admitted, the hospital allowed anti-abortion extremists to see her and show her graphic videos of abortions. This did not stop Paulina from moving forward however, the doctors at the hospital conscientiously objected to performing the procedure. Paulina and Maria Elena appealed to the Attorney General to enforce the law and instead, he took them to see a Catholic priest. The priest advised Paulina, a 14 year-old who had been raped and then became pregnant, that abortion was a sin. No mention was made of the sin that had been visited upon Paulina through the rape and subsequent pregnancy. Paulina pressed on and the Attorney General eventually signed an order for the abortion. Once again Paulina and Maria Elena went to the hospital, order in hand. Once again, they were dissuaded from the abortion. The hospital director over-emphasized the risks of the procedure and this time it worked. Paulina did not have the abortion and carried her child to term. Following her failed abortion attempts, two Mexican women’s rights groups filed lawsuits on her behalf. Epikeia and GIRE (Information Group on Reproductive Choice) filed criminal and civil charges. These groups also took the case to the State Human Rights Director who forwarded the case to the National Human Rights Commission for a determination regarding potential violations of Paulina’s human rights.
In this example, the entire system failed Paulina. While there were laws in place, lawyers, doctors, priests, and society conspired to disallow Paulina her legal option. Law, interpretation of that law, enforcement, and prevailing attitudes, impact abortion services. In a country where women number more than half the population, they have minimal impact on reproductive rights. Given what it takes to obtain an abortion under legal circumstances, it is believable when we see statistics that tell us of the 1.7 million abortions per year in Mexico, 850 thousand are induced. Statistics further show that abortion is between the third or fourth cause of death and between the second to fourth cause of hospitalization in Mexico.
While abortion is illegal in Mexico, the threat of prosecution is usually only a threat. But if one is caught, it is a lifelong stigma.
A research study in 1992 in Mexico City determined that of 600 women inmates in the Tepepan jail, only one had been convicted of provoking an abortion. She was 81 years old, nearly blind, and an alternative health care worker. (Martinez)
As this case illustrates, there is minimal prosecution of the offenders. In fact, corruption ensures little prosecution. A woman pays the equivalent of approximately 1,000 U.S. dollars to secure her release from any charges that are brought (it is called the amparo, that is the Mexican habeas corpus law). It is no wonder abortion, while illegal, continues to flourish outside the mainstream of health care providers and procedures. Even the government speaks from both sides of its mouth, “Abortion is illegal, a sin, and punishable; pay up!”
The threat of prosecution does its part in keeping abortion out of the mainstream and therefore unavailable to those except the very wealthy. Women living in poverty who choose abortion are very unlikely to be able to obtain one. If they are successful in their quest, they are likely to die for their efforts. Poor women do not have the luxury of pristine medical conditions or trained practitioners therefore, their chances of surviving their abortion are greatly reduced. This is of course assuming they are able to locate services in the first place. In 1993, fifty nine percent of women in Mexico lacked access to legal medical services. (Martinez)
Only starting in 2007, The Procuradoria general, allowed passage of an abortion law but only for the city of Mexico D.F. (the capital of mexico, which is made up of approximately 23 million people.
The Mexican health care system is sub-divided into many sectors including the salaried sector (social security), state sector (open to all), and the private sector consisting of many layers. All of these factions serve to create confusion, under-coverage and a lack of resources. Following the World Summit for Children in 1990, Mexico did create programs aimed at pregnant women however, contraception and abortion are still not on the table. Instead of looking at how to limit childbirth, which is what many women desire, the country has taken steps to improve care for pregnant women. While this is a positive move, it does leave one asking the questions, “What happens once the child is delivered and pregnancy complete? What programs are in place to ensure growth and provide opportunities for the child that has just entered the world?”
In the United States, we have once again determined what is appropriate for individuals in other countries. It seems our “assistance” is never without strings. During the Regan Administration, the U.S enacted the Mexico City Policy prohibiting receipt of United States’ funds by Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) supporting abortions. It made in no difference the NGOs were supporting abortions in compliance with the legal limitations of their own country and with their own funds. The fact that made the difference was that they were supporting abortions. Once again, the U.S. became the world’s morality police. This policy ended in 1993 during the Clinton Administration, but a continuing attack was waged within Congress to restrict funding to NGOs similar to the policy Clinton had ended. Congress was successful in 1999 when it struck a deal with Clinton resulting in the Global Gag Rule however, the intent was it would be in effect for only one year. The current Bush Administration, as it panders to the right wing political structure, has maintained the Global Gag Rule forbidding foreign aid to NGOs using their own money to fund or promote abortion as a method of family planning. It should be noted that “family planning” is loosely defined. This policy censors speech that promotes human rights law reform in that it bars NGOs from speaking freely regarding abortion law reformation. These organizations cannot express views contrary to that of the Unites States government, cannot organize a debate, publish factual information, testify before or give briefings to Congress, attend or speak publicly at United Nations conferences. (CRLP)
Gagging these organizations only serves to further ensure their countries remain a “step below” without adequate representation, access to health care and human rights legislations and protections. Most importantly, what this country does to NGOs is inconsistent with the Constitutional principles we hold in such high esteem in the United States.
The United States is therefore limiting “free speech, democratic participation, and reproductive autonomy.” (CRLP)
The United States, until recently, when Barak Obama came to power, has been programmatically depriving women of equal participation and recognition in the societies of the third world. The first action that Obama took in 2009 was to repeal the Global Gag rule, for which women are very grateful.
Abortion in Mexico is really now an option; unfortunately women have to travel afar to the federal District in order to get one.
B. Use of Contraception in Mexico is more probable, but the statistics reflect that nearly fifteen percent of women, who may find contraception useful, are unaware of it or have no monetary means to obtain it.
Mexican society demonstrates little regard for contraception. Although the government outwardly continues to take an active role in promoting smaller families, the reality is that most men feel that applies to everyone but them. Large families are a sign of prestige and success. In reality, they are a sign of a society that does not value the input of women or the rights of women. This is not to say that all large families are a burden on society or a result of inadequate women’s rights. It is to say that should be a conscious choice that all make – both men and women. Mexico has made it illegal to obtain an abortion since Carlos S. de Gortari. Women die from self-induced abortions every day, a few are imprisoned, and corruption is rampant.
It is time to reconsider the paradigm.1 If abortion were not illegal, it would continue to be performed sanitarily, as it is today, but only in Mexico City.
This is an indication how highly centralized Mexican legislation still is. All administrative, and juridical power derives from the center, at the detriment of women living in the other 31 states of Mexico.
The only difference would be a society that supported its women through viable health care, access to options, hygienic abortions, and the removal of the shame.
Women do not get pregnant alone.
1 See Martha Lara’s plea for a change in reproduction politics in the state of Oaxaca.
Center for Reproductive Law & Policy. “The Bush Global Gag Rule. A Violation of
International Human Rights and the U.S. Constitution.” July 2001. Web-site.
Farmer, Ann. “In Mexico, Abortion Rights Strictly for the Books.” Reproductive
Freedom News. Vol. 81, No. 6. June 2000.
Martinez, Katherine Hall, Bartolone, Alison-Marie, Rayas, Lucia (CRLP) and Rayas,
Lucia, Giacoman, Claudia, and Herrera, Julieta (GIRE). “Women’s
Reproductive Rights in Mexico: A Shadow Report.” December 1997.
McConahay, Mary Jo. “Mexico’s Population Planners Walk a Fine Line to Reach Their
Goal. Pacific News Service, JINN, on-line. January 22, 1999.
Rahman, Anika, Katzive, Laura, and Henshaw, Stanley K. “A Global Review of Laws on Induced Abortion, 1985-1997.” June 1998. CRLP web-site.
Senate Record Vote Analysis. “Foreign Population Aid & Abortion”, (Mexico City Policy) Passage.” 105th Congress, 1st Session, February 25, 1997.
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