MEXICO CITY — When the Supreme Court in Mexico made a landmark decision on Tuesday declaring abortion not a crime, activists across the country celebrated. On Wednesday, they returned to work and began the long and arduous process of ensuring the legal shift applies throughout Mexico.
One of their top priorities is to help the women who need it most: those who face criminal penalties, often after being reported to authorities for trying to have an abortion under dangerous circumstances.
“A woman who decides to have an abortion is already vulnerable, and then we also have to face the plight in which we believe we will be punished,” said Yetlanezi Pech, who was rushed to a hospital bleeding after an attempted abortion, only to get an emergency room doctor to refuse her help and report her to the authorities.
“I felt so much fear, I felt so unsafe, I felt really, really bad,” she said. “And I also felt alone.”
Ms. Pech is one of thousands of women who have been investigated in recent years for obtaining an abortion illegally. In the first seven months of this year alone, 432 investigations into illegal abortion cases were opened across Mexico, according to the Mexican government.
Tuesday’s ruling set a legal precedent for the nation — and stands in stark contrast to the trend in the United States, where Texas and other states have recently moved to restrict abortion. The court’s decision also raised the prospect of Mexico eventually becoming a destination for American women seeking to terminate their pregnancies, lawyers said, though it would require removing the many barriers that make abortion difficult in much of the country.
Tuesday’s decision applies only to the border state of Coahuila, and to put it into practice across the country will require either legal challenges in each of Mexico’s 28 states that still criminalize the procedure, or an amendment to the law. by state legislators. The judges did not specify how far into a pregnancy a woman can legally get an abortion, meaning those conditions will likely be determined at the state level.
A leading abortion rights group in Mexico, GIRE, said it would push for abortion to be legal in Coahuila at least 12 weeks after conception — a time limit set in the law that made abortion legal in Mexico City and previously validated by the Supreme Court.
If that were the case, Coahuila would have more permissive abortion rules than neighboring Texas, where the state legislature recently passed a law banning most abortions after about six weeks. In time, Texas women might be able to cross the border to have an abortion, but for now there wouldn’t be enough infrastructure to meet the need, activists said.
“More needs to be done before women and people of childbearing potential in Texas can get the service in Coahuila,” said Melissa Ayala García, process coordinator for GIRE. “We still have a way to go to ensure the service is delivered.”
Texas law prohibits abortion once cardiac activity can be detected in the embryo. There is no heart at this stage of development, just electrical activity in developing cells that starts around six weeks before many women even realize they are pregnant.
Activists in Mexico have already begun working on a strategy to force states to abide by the court’s ruling, though their fight to make abortion legal and safe across the country could be lengthy. Only Mexico City and three other states allowed abortions on demand before Tuesday’s decision.
“We are already organized and ready to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the new court decision,” said Arely Torres Miranda, a reproductive rights advocate in San Luis Potosí state. “What we need to do is get them to change the law.”
That plan is likely to meet with resistance. Mexico’s conservative PAN party, one of the main opposition parties, has resisted attempts to legalize the procedure.
“The party clearly has the right to life from conception in both its platform and its principles,” said Damián Zepeda Vidales, a PAN senator and former party leader.
Mr Zepeda, who said he would personally oppose legalization attempts in the Senate, added that the party was waiting for the Supreme Court to publish the decision behind Tuesday’s ruling to determine its national strategy.
Since Mexico City legalized abortion in 2007, a network of activists there have worked there to provide a safe path for women seeking abortions, either by transporting them to the capital or by giving them misoprostol, a drug commonly used to treat abortions. induce abortion.
But many women are too scared to reach those groups and opt for clandestine abortions.
“We’ve seen terrible cases where they did it with hangers, punching their stomachs,” said Ms Torres Miranda. “They’re putting their lives on the line.”
When those methods go wrong or lead to excessive bleeding, women often go to hospitals. But federal law requires medical providers to notify authorities when a patient shows signs of involvement in criminal activity, such as having an abortion.
“Yesterday’s ruling will also allow us, when we change the law, to remove the obligation for the health sector to report when they discover an abortion,” said Ms Torres Miranda.
In general, the most marginalized women — those who are poor and live in rural areas — are those who face criminal penalties for having an abortion, Ms Torres Miranda said.
It was not clear how many women in total are currently being prosecuted or in prison for having an abortion, activists said, because it is difficult to collect comprehensive state-level data.
Ms. Pech said that as soon as she arrived in the emergency room after her home abortion went wrong two years ago, she was treated as if she did not deserve medical attention. The doctor who admitted Mrs. Pech accused her of being a drug addict and persuaded her colleagues not to offer help.
“No one wanted to come near me because I was having an abortion,” Ms Pech said. When she eventually underwent surgery, she said, her then-partner was told they would both soon be detained for the crime of terminating the pregnancy.
“The same doctor who received me called the authorities to come and arrest me,” she said. She was able to quickly hire a lawyer and avoid arrest. But before the lawyer agreed to challenge the case in court, he came to her home to set an ultimatum.
“He told me to ask God’s forgiveness for what I had done,” she said. “And then he would help me.”
Ms. Pech, who has two sons, said that with the help of the lawyer, she managed to avoid criminal penalties.
Tuesday’s landmark decision is the first of several abortion rights cases to be heard by the Supreme Court this month. On Thursday, judges will examine whether a provision in a Sinaloa state law that protects life from conception is equally unconstitutional. Given the court’s recent rulings in favor of abortion access, analysts say it’s highly likely that the judges will decide to pass the law.
“That would also be historic,” said Ms Ayala, the process coordinator for GIRE. “We are in a very, very, very important September.”
But the issue continues to divide the general population: Mexico is a largely socially conservative country where the Catholic Church holds considerable sway. A majority of Mexicans still oppose legal abortion, polls show.
But attitudes have changed over time. In 2005, just 12 percent of the country was in favor of legalizing abortion in all cases, according to a poll by research firm Parametria. A 2019 poll conducted by the newspaper El Financiero found that nearly a third of Mexicans said they support full legalization.
This week’s decision meant, at least for Ms Pech, that change could finally come, and that other women would be spared the suffering she’s been through.
“This opens up the possibility that these things won’t happen again,” she said. “There’s no reason this should happen.”