Mexico’s Abortion War

The culture clashes aren't just in the United States anymore.


Communities are split by the wedge of abortion rights, with pro-choice and anti-abortion doctors working tensely together in the same public hospitals and protesters yelling outside: It’s a familiar image in the United States, but lately abortion has polarized another country perhaps even more. Just two years after Mexico City became the first major Latin American capital to legalize it, abortion has become a flashpoint for social conflict throughout the country. Today, a wave of anti-abortion legislation is moving across Mexico’s states and towns, and both abortion-rights and anti-abortion activists and legislators are preparing for full-blown war.

As in the United States, the conflict is as much about politics as it is about abortion. Mexican political parties here have found that the touchy social topic is a useful polarizer — one that fires up voters on both sides. With the presidential election coming up in 2012, parties are already trying to line up fervent supporters. So recently, the moderate Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has joined the ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN) in backing anti-abortion reforms. The PRI’s decision is a major political gamble. A party from the center that was in power for decades before being unseated by PAN presidents Vicente Fox in 2000 and Felipe Calderón in 2006, the PRI is betting that abortion might just be the issue that could attract just enough conservative voters to bulk up its usual moderate core, snag PAN’s base — and repay Calderón the electoral favor.

Abortion law in Mexico is still a patchwork and highly local affair. In the small majority of states where it’s illegal (except in instances of rape and sometimes the mother’s health), abortion carries varying degrees of punishment, from mandatory psychological treatment to jail time. But since 2007, the procedure has been allowed during the first three months of pregnancy in Mexico City, drawing women from across the country — and ire from anti-abortion discontents. After an uproar over the legalization, the country’s Supreme Court upheld the capital’s right to provide the service in the fall of 2008.

But just last month, when the Gulf Coast’s Veracruz became the 17th of 31 states to pass legislation declaring that life begins at conception — effectively banning abortion — legislators there upped the ante. They submitted an amendment to Mexico’s Congress that proposes outlawing abortion throughout the country. The body is obligated to consider such amendments from states. Meanwhile, six more states have proposals banning abortion languishing in their legislatures.

This recent surge of anti-abortion proposals comes with the support of both PAN and PRI. In recent years, PRI in particular has had phenomenal success in rural areas where its promises to defend "family values" and the "right to life" are hitting home with local families. And though a national ban would be unlikely to pass the legislature, says John Ackerman, legal analyst and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, it might still reflect public opinion. "In theory, Mexicans are in favor of abortion in specific circumstances like health or rape, but I think in general there is a strong current against abortion," Ackerman said in an interview. He argues that, packaged in the right rhetoric of religious morals, the anti-abortion campaign has become a powerful draw even to skeptics.

Although PAN is a right-leaning party, it has been less hard-line about the abortion issue — something that may well push conservative voters into the more adamant PRI camp. By courting both social moderates and conservatives, the PRI is banking on a wider appeal that steals votes away from Calderon’s PAN by the 2012 election.

The PRI’s plan — straddling the shaky space between the religious right and the party’s usual, more moderate base — presents high risks and high rewards. The party’s position on abortion may be enough to win over the Catholic Church’s leadership, for example. Over the past decade, the church has become a direct actor in contemporary social affairs, and today it is more eager than ever to assert itself. That desire to regain influence over the presidency could inspire its leaders to endorse PRI candidates in exchange for the promise of a seat at the table when the time comes to appoint ministers and officials. Especially since Mexico does not allow campaigning by candidates until right before its elections, the church’s endorsement would be crucial in a tight race. In the last presidential election, they endorsed PAN, but this year PRI might hope to make it more of a contest.

But opposition to the anti-abortion laws may yet be stronger than the PRI has suspected. "Mexico is a religious country but not a fundamental[ist] country, and that is the fine line the PRI is playing," says Ackerman. The abortion question has opened a rupture between the country’s conservative, Catholic past and its more liberal present reality, where divorce, premarital sex, and contraceptive use are all flourishing. Abortion-rights activists are fighting back, feverishly readying their own challenges of unconstitutionality to the anti-abortion amendments. On the streets, by phone, by e-mail, and in local outreach groups, they are encouraging women to file amparos, or legal stays, to protect their individual rights. The groups are organizing mass marches and working with the liberal Party of the Democratic Revolution to make Baja California Sur the first state outside Mexico City to decriminalize abortion. Editorials in left-leaning papers lambast anti-abortion politicians, for example PRI president Beatriz Paredes, who claims to be a feminist in support of a woman’s right to choose despite her party’s moving the other direction. After all, a significant contingent of the PRI is in favor of a degree of abortion rights. Campaigners believe their struggle isn’t in vain. The Population Council found this year that 73 percent of Mexico City residents are in favor of the legalization of abortion.

While abortion-rights activists agree that more local anti-abortion measures may still pass, they are skeptical that a federal ban will be approved. The Party of the Democratic Revolution says it is drafting a resolution mandating a separation between church and state. They plan to demand that the PRI declare its position vis-à-vis the proposal, which could affect its anti-abortion fight. If nothing else, the debate has forced women to start asking themselves and their leaders tough questions. As Daniela Marquez, a 22-year-old shopkeeper in Mexico City, told me, "I don’t agree with abortion except in extreme cases…. But I don’t think the government should have the power to choose what’s best for a woman."

Alexis Okeowo is a journalist in Mexico.