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From fear to freedom: Mexico’s abortion reforms

When Fernanda Garcia went to hospital with pain and bleeding after taking medication to end her pregnancy, a nurse threatened to report her and said she could go to prison.

Following a ruling by Mexico’s top court that abortion is not a crime, cases like hers could become a thing of the past in the conservative Latin American nation.

An adverse reaction to the medication Garcia took forced her to seek treatment, despite the potential repercussions in the central state of Guanajuato, where abortion is allowed only after rape.

The nurse “told me that I was bad, that I didn’t know what I’d done, that I would face prosecution and could end up in jail,” the 22-year-old told AFP.

She grabbed her belongings and fled in fear.

On September 7, a month after Garcia’s traumatic experience, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that criminalizing abortion is unconstitutional.

The decision followed a constitutional challenge to the penal code of the northern state of Coahuila, where abortion carries a punishment of up to three years in prison.

It will affect the whole of Mexico, opening the way for women across the country to access the procedure without fear of prosecution.

The ruling “made me feel a little relieved, but I’m still very anxious,” said Garcia, adding that fear of arrest had even provoked suicidal thoughts.

‘Conscientious objection’

Abortion has been decriminalized in four of the country’s 32 states — including Mexico City — in the first 12 weeks, while elsewhere it is permitted in cases of rape.

Women will now be able to undergo the procedure with a judge’s order in the states where it is criminalized.

Abortion is free in clinics in the capital and is also provided to women from other states.

“I’m very thankful that it’s legal here (in Mexico City), although it is inaccessible for some women” in other states, said Fatima Ramirez, who ended an unwanted pregnancy nine years ago, when she was 15.

Around 430 investigations were opened in Mexico for cases of illegal abortion in the first seven months of 2021, according to official data.

Some doctors refuse to carry out the procedure.

On September 20, the Supreme Court struck down a part of the health law that allowed medical personnel to decline to carry out an abortion on the grounds of conscientious objection.

The court left it to Congress to pass legislation clarifying the guidelines.

“We need regulation that protects the rights of health personnel, but that also provides legal protection to patients so that their rights are not infringed,” says constitutional expert Alex Ali Mendez.

– ‘Favoring death’ –

There have been reported cases in Mexico of health workers reporting women for having had illegal abortions, leading to their arrest.

The 28 Mexican states where abortion is criminalized must now reform their penal codes and decriminalize abortion, said campaigner Isabel Fulda of the Information Group on Reproductive Choice.

Advances in the struggle for women’s rights have generated divisions in the Catholic-majority country.

The Church objected to the recent court rulings, saying that “the law is aimed at favoring death before life.”

Hundreds of women took part in a march last Tuesday in Mexico City marking International Safe Abortion Day, leading to clashes with police that left 37 people injured, authorities said.

Across Latin America, thousands took to the streets to demand abortion rights.

In the region, abortion is legal in Uruguay, Cuba, Argentina and Guyana.

It is banned in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and allowed only in certain circumstances such as after rape or for health reasons elsewhere. 

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