The ground literally shook on the day the Mexican Supreme Court decriminalized abortion: On September 7, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the Mexican Pacific coast, rocking several states and killing one person. It lasted about a minute.
But the shockwaves sent across the region by the court’s abortion ruling will be felt for years to come.
One women’s right leader consulted by CNN says the unanimous ruling, which found penalizing abortion to be unconstitutional, could make Mexico a destination for women from the US – where abortion was recently strictly limited in Texas – and even a model for other countries in Latin America, a region that has not historically been friendly to women seeking abortion.
What the ruling means
Mexico’s highest court had been asked to consider a law enacted in the northern state of Coahuila, which said that women who get an abortion may be punished with up to three years in prison and a fine.
In a unanimous vote, the court declared the local law unconstitutional, a ruling that doesn’t automatically legalize abortion in the country, according to analysts consulted by CNN. Pending cases must still be heard at the local level and laws restricting abortion in states across Mexico are still on the books.
However, it sets a powerful precedent for the rest of the country, which the Supreme Court justices acknowledged as they took the decision. Ana Margarita Ríos Farjat, one of only three women on the bench, also spoke forcefully against the Coahuila law before casting her vote.
“I’m against stigmatizing those who make this decision [to undergo an abortion] which I believe is difficult to begin with, due to moral and social burdens. It shouldn’t be burdened as well by the law. Nobody gets voluntarily pregnant thinking about getting an abortion later,” she said.
“Never again will a woman or a person with the capacity to carry a child be criminally prosecuted,” later concluded Justice Luis María Aguilar, praising the ruling as “a historic step.”
The ruling received high praise by women’s and reproductive rights groups, but was blasted by conservatives and the Mexican Catholic Church. While the court seems to have decidedly moved to the left, the country remains polarized. Mexican public opinion is still deeply divided on the issue on abortion.
Polling conducted before the decision by national newspaper “El Financiero,” showed that 53 percent of Mexicans opposed the law allowing women the right to have an abortion, while 45 percent agree that Mexican law should allow the procedure.
This reality was reflected in interviews conducted by CNN the morning after the ruling was issued on the streets of Mexico City.
“A woman shouldn’t be deprived of her right to decide for herself and much less be incarcerated for something she decides about her own body,” said one woman walking on the centric Reforma Avenue, who declined to be named.
“I agree that women should do whatever they want with their body, but not on this issue. We’re talking about a human being. Things shouldn’t be done that away [by having an abortion],” said another who also declined to be named.
A much awaited day
On the day of the ruling, those in favor and against abortion had peacefully protested in front of the Mexican Supreme Court building. Some knelt and prayed, or held figurines of fetuses up high, while others waved banners demanding safe and legal abortions, which described their cause as a “fight against a patriarchal society.”
The ruling is a blow to much of Mexico’s vast and deep-rooted Catholic community. Before it was heard, Bishop Jesús José Herrera Quiñones from the Nuevo Casas Grandes Diocese, issued a statement on behalf of the Mexican Episcopal Conference: “We would like to remind you all that a human being, conceived by a father and a mother, whose life begins at the moment of conception, should be recognized in his or her dignity in all stages of life and deserves the same protection under the law in the face of actions that could put this person in jeopardy,” Herrera Quiñones wrote.
The day after the ruling, Eduardo Verástegui, a Mexican actor-turned-conservative-activist, criticized the court’s decision in an emotional tweet pinned to his official account. “Mexico cries today. Mexico shakes today. It is raining unconsolably in several parts of the country and the Earth creaks. Today thousands of Mexican babies have been condemned to die. Mexico cries today; Mexico shakes for its daughters and sons that will never be born,” Verástegui wrote.
But history has been made. María Antonieta Alcalde, director of Ipas/Central America and Mexico, a women’s rights groups that also advocates for reproductive rights, says the court’s ruling is the result of years of lobbying and advocating by organizations like hers with the purpose of making abortion safe and legal in Mexico.
“Even though the decision was expected, the positions of the different judges, how clear their message was and having a unanimous decision was something that we didn’t expect,” Alcalde said.
She stressed that even though the ruling of the court applies to the state of Coahuila specifically, it sends a message to all the states. Under Mexico’s federal system, states can enact their own laws, but a ruling by the Supreme Court supersedes any local statutes.
Alcalde also said the ruling may also have repercussions across the Mexican border, specifically when it comes to Texas, where controversial law that bars abortions after six weeks went into effect on September 1.
“Texas is moving in the other direction. What could happen is that more Texan women may decide to travel to Mexico. It’s kind of the opposite of what used to happen. A lot of Mexican women used to travel to the U.S. to have a safe and legal abortion. What we will see in the future, especially if keeps the new law, is that some women from Texas may travel to Mexico to have a safe and legal abortion,” Alcalde said.
Before the ruling, abortion was only legal in all of Mexico’s states only when the pregnancy was the result of rape. In issuing her opinion, Justice Ana Margarita Ríos said that – legal or not – between 750,000 and a million abortions are practiced in Mexico yearly.
The ruling could mark a turning point for the greater Latin American region, which the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think-tank dedicated to the analysis of international affairs in the Western Hemisphere, describes as “one of the most restrictive regions in the world when it comes to reproductive health laws and policies, particularly abortion.”
Abortion is entirely prohibited in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, and Suriname, according to a February analysis by the organization.
The same analysis notes that abortion is allowed in several countries only under strict conditions – typically when the pregnancy is the result of rape, involves a fatal fetal anomaly, or poses a health risk to the mother’s life – and is allowed “on demand” in Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana, French Guiana, and Argentina.