Thursday, 07 September 2023 18:29

Latin American abortion rights activists just notched another win in Mexico

Women take part in a protest during the International Safe Abortion Day at the Zocalo main square, in Mexico City, Mexico, on September 28, 2022.

Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion nationwide Wednesday, making it one of many Latin American countries that has eased restrictions on the procedure in recent years.

Wednesday’s decision comes after a narrower 2021 ruling that decriminalized abortion only in the state of Coahuila, which sits along the US-Mexico border. Though some states moved to liberalize their laws around abortion since that ruling, federal law defining abortion as “unconstitutional,” as well as laws penalizing medical providers who perform the procedure, still stood until Wednesday. Now, abortion will become available in all federal Mexican health institutions in every state where women could have previously faced criminal penalties for undergoing the procedure.

“It is a huge and historic victory for Mexico and for the entire region,” said Anu Kumar, president and CEO of Ipas, a global reproductive justice organization. “Abortion is not a crime. Abortion is part of essential health care. And that is what the Supreme Court in Mexico now clearly recognizes.”

Mexico — much like the rest of conservative, largely Catholic Latin America — has been slow to lift restrictions on abortion. But under pressure from abortion activists’ so-called “Green Wave” movement, the legal landscape has changed dramatically in the last three years. Since Argentine lawmakers voted to legalize the procedure in 2020, Colombia’s highest court also decriminalized abortion, Ecuadorian lawmakers made abortion legal in cases of rape, and Chilean lawmakers began seeking to guarantee women’s reproductive rights through the country’s new constitution. (The rise of the far right in elections held earlier this year, however, has threatened to reverse that progress in Chile.)

Wednesday’s ruling is another victory for the Green Wave.

“Latin America has a very powerful not just feminist movement, but social justice movement, and they are increasingly working at a regional level,” Kumar said.

Attitudes on abortion are changing in Mexico

The ruling in Mexico is a reflection of changing attitudes about abortion. In Mexico, nearly a third of the population supported legalizing abortion in all cases in 2019, compared to just 12 percent in 2005. A bigger share — 46 percent — supported legalizing abortion in all or most cases in a Pew Research survey earlier this year. Still, support for abortion remains lower in Mexico and other Latin American countries than in the US and many other countries globally, particularly in Europe.

The level at which Latin Americans support abortion rights is also lower compared to support among Hispanics living in the US, who include people from other Spanish-speaking countries in addition to those from Latin America. A September 2022 survey by Pew Research found that 57 percent of US Hispanics say abortion should be legal in most or all cases. And in 2022, after the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, abortion entered the top five issues that US Latinos were concerned about for the first time.

That discrepancy might be in part attributed to differences in how religious beliefs factor into views on abortion in Latin America compared to among Hispanics living in the US. Secularism is rising among both Latin Americans and US Hispanics, but more slowly among the former. Some 57 percent of Latin Americans identified as Catholic as of 2020, whereas exactly half of US Hispanics identified as Catholic that year.

What the ruling means for women seeking abortions in Mexico

Wednesday’s ruling will bring about immediate changes in Mexico: States will have to change their laws to comply, clinical standards and guidelines will have to be rolled out, medical providers will have to be trained to administer abortion, and the public will have to be educated on their newfound right to an abortion and how they can access it.

In the parts of Mexico that have been administering abortions in large numbers for more than a decade, like Mexico City, those changes should be implemented relatively quickly. Expanding abortion access beyond federal facilities in states that currently criminalize the procedure is expected to take more time, and right-wing opponents to abortion rights have promised to fight the decision.

“Let’s remember what happened in the United States,” Irma Barrientos, leader of the anti-abortion group the Civil Association for the Rights of the Conceived told the Associated Press. “After 40 years, the Supreme Court reversed its abortion decision, and we’re not going to stop until Mexico guarantees the right to life from the moment of conception.”

Despite opposition, the decision is expected to open up opportunities for not just Mexicans, but for all Central Americans, and even citizens of the United States. After Roe v. Wade fell, Americans in states with abortion bans increasingly began traveling from the US to Mexico to access abortions. That trend is likely to continue.

“People will definitely travel to Mexico to get the care that they need,” Kumar said.