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MEXICO: Conservatives Lose Key Battle Against Abortion

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Aug 27 2008 (IPS) - The Mexican government, Catholic Church and conservative groups lost a crucial battle Wednesday in their fight against abortion, which was legalised in the capital in April 2007.

In Supreme Court deliberations on a legal challenge brought by the conservative federal government last year with the aim of overturning the 2007 Mexico City law, it became clear Wednesday that at least seven of the 11 justices would vote that the law does not violate the constitution.

Although the Supreme Court sessions will continue, there is no longer any chance that the Mexico City law will be revoked, because at least eight of the 11 magistrates would have to declare it unconstitutional.

“Reason, the law, and women’s right to decide have prevailed,” Lorena Martínez, a member of a women’s rights group at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told IPS.

But Marcela Fernández, of the anti-abortion group Comité Pro Vida (Pro Life Committee), lamented to IPS that “the sacred right to life is the loser here.”

The federal Attorney General’s Office and National Human Rights Commission had challenged the constitutionality of the Mexico City law that legalised abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Since the law went into effect, 26,000 women have sought information in municipal public health facilities on the right to abortion, and 12,262 women have undergone the procedure in Mexico City.

According to the local authorities, 50 percent of the women who had abortions were single women under the age of 24, and the women were two months pregnant on average.

The law that struck down the penalties for abortion – three to six months in prison or community service – was approved last year by the Mexico City assembly, which is dominated by the leftwing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

Although the penalties remain in place for women who undergo an abortion after the 12th week of pregnancy without medical indication, studies show that the punishment is rarely if ever applied.

The Supreme Court held several hearings between April and June to receive input from activists, lawyers, doctors, government officials and religious groups opposed to and in favour of the law that legalised abortion in Mexico City.

On Sunday, the day before the magistrates began their final debate on the question, the president of Mexico’s bishops’ conference, Carlos Aguiar, appeared in a paid TV spot urging the Court to rule that the abortion law was unconstitutional.

“Among the many challenges facing the country, respect for human life from conception is paramount. Without the gift of life, no other right is possible. The defence of the newly conceived human being must be accompanied by the defence of the dignity of women. Respect for the right to life forms the basis of true democracy,” the bishop said in the ad.

For its part, the administration of President Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) challenged the Mexico City law through the Attorney-General’s Office, using legal rather than religious arguments.

The National Human Rights Commission, a state body, also tried to get the law repealed, thus drawing harsh criticism from human rights activists.

But the arguments set forth by opponents of the law failed to convince the necessary majority of magistrates.

Supreme Court Justice Genaro Góngora said “there are no universally accepted and compellingly rational legal elements making it obligatory for the criminal justice system to defend the right to life of the product of conception before the 12th week of pregnancy.”

Justice José de Jesús Gudiño argued that “in the constitution there is not one single provision establishing the direct protection of the product of conception, independently of and against the will of the mother,” which means the decriminalisation of abortion is not unconstitutional.

By contrast, Justice Salvador Aguirre, who came out against the law, repeated on several occasions that it was not a question of penalising women but of safeguarding embryos, which in his view have been left without protection.

When the municipal law was passed in April 2007, surveys showed that although 40 percent of respondents were opposed to it, the decriminalisation of abortion enjoyed majority support, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Mexicans are Roman Catholic and the Church punishes the practice of abortion with excommunication.

While the draft law was being debated by the Mexico City assembly, Pope Benedict XVI urged the assembly-members not to approve it, sparking protests by the left that the Vatican was meddling in the domestic affairs of another state.

According to a UNAM study, up to one million illegal abortions a year – equivalent to 30 percent of all pregnancies – are performed in this country of 104 million people. But other sources put the number at less than 500,000.

Although abortion is legal in all of Mexico’s 32 states for victims of rape, studies show that in practice it is extremely difficult for a rape victim to exercise her legal right to terminate her pregnancy, because of an endless list of administrative hurdles and outright obstruction by the authorities.

In addition, 27 states allow the termination of pregnancy when the mother’s life is at risk, 13 allow it in the case of serious fetal deformities, and 10 permit it in order to protect the expectant mother’s health.

Studies also show that “back-alley” abortions are the fourth or fifth cause of death among women in Mexico, and that obtaining permission for a legal abortion in any of the abovementioned circumstances is difficult to impossible.

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