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Women Go to Prison For Abortions in Mexico. But That Could Soon Change

MEXICO CITY — Miriam was eight months pregnant and home alone when she started bleeding unexpectedly. “I lost sense of time. I couldn’t move,” she said. When she regained consciousness 11 hours later, her baby was dead. At the hospital, a doctor began interrogating her, asking her what she had inserted to damage her uterus.…

Women Go to Prison For Abortions in Mexico. But That Could Soon Change

MEXICO CITY — Miriam was eight months pregnant and home alone when she started bleeding unexpectedly. “I lost sense of time. I couldn’t move,” she said. When she regained consciousness 11 hours later, her baby was dead.

At the hospital, a doctor began interrogating her, asking her what she had inserted to damage her uterus. Prosecutors determined that she’d attempted an abortion and charged her with “aggravated homicide” of her baby. She spent 14 years in prison before her release in 2018.

Abortion has been illegal in Mexico for more than a century. Miriam, 49, is one of hundreds of women who have faced criminal charges since 2000 for suspected cases of abortion. Thousands more have been investigated by the police, as well as hundreds of men suspected of helping women obtain abortions.

Now, Mexico is slowly inching toward the decriminalization of abortion, propelled by a strong activist movement and shifting politics toward the left. The movement comes amid campaigns to decriminalize abortion across Latin America, which is majority Catholic and has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Suriname have total bans on abortion, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The biggest win in recent years for abortion rights in Mexico came in September. Lawmakers in the southern state of Oaxaca approved a law decriminalizing abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, becoming the second jurisdiction in the country to do so, after Mexico City.

In December, Mexico’s lower house of Congress approved legislation proposed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that would grant amnesty to women federally prosecuted for abortion, including those charged with homicide. The bill would also grant amnesty to around 1,000 people in prison for low-level drug crimes. It’s expected to soon go before the Senate, where López Obrador’s Morena party holds a majority.

1580484346672-MX-Miriam10Miriam, 49, at the hair salon where she works in Ensenada. (Photo: Guillermo Arias Camarena/VICE News)

To be sure, the proposal before Mexican lawmakers would have limited impact in the short term, because virtually all abortion-related prosecutions occur at the state level. No women are currently serving time for abortion prosecuted at the federal level, according to abortion-rights activists. Still, they say it’s an important symbolic step, and one they hope will be replicated across the country.

“More than the number of women affected, this legislation sends a clear message recognizing women’s right to have control over their bodies,” said Rep. Lorena Villavicencio. “It opens the door toward decriminalization.”

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“Abortion is assassination. The general population doesn’t accept it.”

Evangelicals and the Catholic Church in Mexico have come out strongly against the bill. Archbishop Carlos Garfias Merlos said the Church supports the decriminalization of abortion for women who have been raped but opposes any additional measures. “Abortion is assassination,” he said. “The general population doesn’t accept it.”

Garfias Merlos said the Church was in “dialogue” with Mexican lawmakers to encourage them to oppose the bill in its current form.

Quiet support

Despite introducing the legislation, López Obrador is not seen as a champion of abortion. During his campaign, he forged a coalition with an evangelical Christian party that opposes abortion. Last year, he suggested that legalization of abortion could be put to a public vote, triggering an outpouring of criticism from abortion-rights activists who said women’s rights should not up be for referendum.

López Obrador has repeatedly declined to speak about abortion when asked about it in his morning press conferences, underscoring just how divisive the topic remains in Mexico. “It’s a controversial topic, and I don’t want to get involved,” he said in response to a reporter’s question in December. “And I apologize because I already have enough issues to address.”

Top-ranking officials in his administration have walked a fine line. López Obrador’s interior secretary stated she is personally opposed to abortion but expressed support for decriminalizing it.

“Of course, I am not in favor of abortion,” Olga Sánchez Cordero said at a public forum in June, noting that she has nine grandchildren. But she added that she doesn’t want to see women “deprived of freedom for 30 years” for terminating their pregnancy, referring to some of the longest sentences imposed.

The federal government’s official Twitter account has been more outspoken. After Oaxacan lawmakers decriminalized abortion, it wrote in a tweet that democracy is strengthened with “the autonomy of women to make decisions over their own bodies.”

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