Maria Luisa Sanchez

Need a Safe Abortion? Go to Mexico City

It is easier to access contraceptive services in Iran, an Islamic theocracy, than it is in Mexico or other Latin American countries. In the U.S. the pro-choice movement is reeling from last Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling to uphold a ban on partial-birth abortions.

U.N. data shows that in countries where women have access to safe contraception, reproductive health care, and legal abortion, the actual abortion rates are much lower than in countries where women do not have such rights.

Mexico's state-by-state abortion laws are among the most restrictive, and the abortions available for poor women are often life threatening. It is estimated that somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 illegal abortions occur annually across the country, making abortion the fifth-leading national cause of maternal mortality and the third-leading cause in Mexico City.

This is why those who can afford it leave the country for abortions in Texas or California. There is hope: On April 24, Mexico City's opposition legislators of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party and the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, and smaller parties such as Alternativa, PT and Convergencia, will vote to fully legalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of a woman's pregnancy (abortion is now only permitted for rape victims or when a mother's life is endangered).

This dramatic policy shift in the world's second largest Catholic nation is due, in part, to the valiant and persistent efforts of a well-organized feminist movement in Mexico. It also stems from Mexico City's liberal majority which gave same-sex unions almost all the rights of marriage last month and recently granted homosexual conjugal visits in prison.

The Mexico City legislature is among the most progressive governments in any Latin American city today. The conservative leadership of the Catholic community is rallying against the April 24th vote, so much so that the Vatican has sent its main anti-abortion campaigner to Mexico to help coordinate activities and media.

The social conservatives who dominate the Mexican political landscape outside the city have also demonstrated sustained opposition to overturning the ban in public protests.

Despite and in response to these obstacles, local women's organizations have led nuanced, vocal campaigns to educate the public on abortion and modify existing laws. A sturdy coalition of these groups called Alliance Pro-Choice includes three long-time Global Fund for Women grantees: Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (Catholics for a Free Choice) or CDD, Equidad de Género: Ciudadanía, Trabajo y Familia (Gender Equity: Citizenship, Employment and Family), and Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (Reproductive Choice Information Group) or GIRE.

Recently, in Mexico's La Jornada, CDD, which provides Catholic pro-choice education on reproductive and sexual health and rights, publicly called for church leadership to "follow the Constitution" and not interject religion into public policy discussions. For such a group, that takes pluck.

Meanwhile, GIRE, an advocacy group for reproductive policy, has established strategic relationships with policy makers to expand reproductive rights for women, while Equidad has mobilized pro-choice advocates.

Historically, Mexico has played a leadership role in Latin America; its laws, policies and practices were frequently emulated regionally. This influence has lessened in recent years, however, due to Mexico's close ties to the U.S.

Abortion is clearly on the legislative dockets of many countries in the region -- last year Colombia relaxed its total abortion ban while Nicaragua expanded its own. Assuming the vote on April 24 overturns the Mexico City ban, the question remains whether other progressive governments such as those in Argentina and Chile, where women's groups have helped to improve women's access to sexual and reproductive rights, will follow suit.

If so, women -- and all of us -- will have much more to celebrate.

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