NOTE: This News in Context has been updated to reflect additional policy changes in Mexico. It supersedes the version posted on May 14, 2009.

By Sharon Camp and Fatima Juarez

On May 21 lawmakers in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, voted to amend the state’s constitution to recognize a “right to life” that begins at conception. San Luis Potosí is not the first Mexican state to adopt such a provision—Baja California, Campeche, Chihuahua, Colima, Durango, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Morelos, Nayarit, Puebla, Quintana Roo and Sonora have all recently passed similar legislation. The trend among Mexican states to reinforce what are already strict restrictions on abortion access comes in reaction to Mexico City’s groundbreaking 2007 policy to legalize abortion in the Federal District of Mexico during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Challenged by abortion rights opponents, the law was recently upheld by Mexico’s Supreme Court. This new spate of state-level laws further restricts Mexican women’s already limited access to legal abortion.

These policies not only demonstrate a shocking lack of compassion, they also directly contradict strong evidence from Mexico and other parts of the world that restricting abortion access does not make abortion less common—it just results in more women dying or being injured by clandestine and unsafe procedures.

Case in point: Despite highly restrictive policies, the number of abortions performed in Mexico increased by one-third (from 533,000 to 875,000) between 1990 and 2006, according to a new study conducted by El Colegio de Mexico, the Population Council Mexico Office and the Guttmacher Institute.

Mexico’s abortion rate of 33 procedures per 1,000 women aged 15–44, is more than 40% higher than the rate in the United States (19 per 1,000 women), even though the procedure is broadly legal in the United States.

Safety is another key difference between the two countries. Fewer than 0.3% of abortion patients in the United States have complications requiring hospitalization. In stark contrast, 17% of Mexican women who obtained abortions in 2006 required treatment in public hospitals for complications.

This comparison is not unique to North America. A worldwide study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization found that abortion rates tend to be lowest where the procedure is broadly legal and contraceptives are widely available and used. Moreover, abortion rates are roughly equal in regions where abortion is legal to those where it isn’t. The only difference, once again, is that the procedure is very safe in countries where abortion is legal and often unsafe in countries where it is highly restricted.

Worldwide, almost all abortions are the result of unintended pregnancies. If Mexican policymakers are concerned about reducing the need for abortion and safeguarding women’s health, they should heed the strong evidence and focus on policies that promote prevention.

This means acknowledging Mexican women’s increased desire to have smaller families by expanding access to contraceptives and promoting their use. It means supporting comprehensive sex education for young people to prepare them for life before they become sexually active. And it means ending abortion restrictions that do nothing to lower the incidence of abortion and only serve to endanger women’s lives. Mexican women deserve no less.

Dr. Sharon Camp is president and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute. Dr. Fatima Juarez is a professor and researcher at El Colegio de Mexico and a senior fellow at the Guttmacher Institute.