Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
 
The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy
October 2000, Volume 3, Number 5
 
For the Record

Abortion Surfaces As Key Issue in Mexican Politics

An attempt by conservative lawmakers in one Mexican state to eliminate the right to abortion for women who have been raped has sparked national debate and prompted another state and the Federal District (Mexico City) to liberalize their own laws. The precipitating move was a narrow August 3 vote by the National Action Party (PAN) in the state of Guanajuato to eliminate the rape exception in the state's law criminalizing abortion. Coming on the heels of Vicente Fox's historic July 2 victory in the Mexican presidential election, the action by legislators in Fox's own party, and in his home state, stoked concern over the national agenda of the right-of-center PAN. Women's rights groups had already mobilized around the case of a 14-year-old rape victim in another PAN-controlled state who gave birth in April after being pressured by state, health care and religious officials to drop her request for a legal abortion.

In response to the controversy, the Mexico City government eased the Federal District's ban on abortion by adding several new exceptions, including to preserve the woman's health, and reducing the prescribed prison terms. Legislators in the state of Morelos followed suit by also approving new exceptions; the state's governor, a member of PAN, has indicated that he will sign the measure. Fox and other national PAN leaders distanced themselves from the Guanajuato legislation, and the local governor vetoed it on August 29 with the support of an opinion poll he commissioned. Meanwhile, leaders of the Catholic church endorsed a complete ban on abortion and threatened lawmakers or others who promote or participate in abortion with excommunication.

All 31 states and the Federal District outlaw abortion, with imprisonment for both the woman and the doctor, but most allow exceptions for rape and to preserve a woman's life and some do so for fetal defects or to safeguard a woman's health. The Alan Guttmacher Institute estimated that over 500,000 illegal abortions were performed in Mexico in 1990 (at a rate similar to that of legal abortions in the United States), leading to the hospitalization of more than 100,000 women for complications. As is the case throughout most of Latin America, higher-income women are usually able to afford safe, professional (but still illegal) care, while many lower-income women resort to dangerous clandestine procedures or traditional remedies.