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MEXICO: States Tighten Already Restrictive Abortion Laws

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Aug 17 2009 (IPS) - Alejandra Gómez is facing prosecution in the southern Mexican state of Puebla for having an abortion. The 20-year-old’s case is symptomatic of a wave of anti-abortion legal reforms adopted by a number of states in this country.

The reforms are seen by activists as a backlash against the April 2007 legalisation of first-trimester abortion in Mexico City.

Except in the federal district, abortion is illegal in Mexico, although the 31 states all make exceptions on varying grounds, such as for victims of rape or in cases in which the mother’s life or health is at risk or there are serious fetal deformities.

However, even women entitled to legal abortions often find it extremely difficult if not impossible to obtain one in practice, due to an endless series of administrative and legal hurdles, according to a 2006 Human Rights Watch report titled “The Second Assault: Obstructing Access to Legal Abortion after Rape in Mexico”.

And since abortion was decriminalised in Mexico City, legal reforms have been introduced in a number of states aimed at making it even more difficult for women to get an abortion and leading to an increase in the prosecution of women who interrupt their pregnancies.

The latest reform was adopted by the parliament of the southeastern state of Yucatán. On Jul. 23, the legislature there modified two articles of the state constitution and one article of the penal code, declaring that life was to be protected from the moment of conception and stiffening penalties for women who have an abortion.

A similar reform of the state constitution was adopted by the legislature of the central state of Morelos in November 2008.

The reforms have been pushed through by lawmakers of the conservative governing National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), with backing from the Catholic Church.

In Mexico, a federal country, the 31 states and federal district each have their own government and laws. These cannot contravene, however, the national constitution or penal code.

“These reforms have generated a huge legal vacuum and a great deal of misinformation, and are heightening the persecution of women who turn to clinics for this kind of service,” Fernanda Díaz, a lawyer for the Grupo de Reproducción en Información Elegida (GIRE – Information Group on Reproductive Choice), told IPS.

A group of 150 women, backed by GIRE, the Academia Morelense de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Academy of Morelos) and the Centro de Investigación y Análisis (FUNDAR – Centre for Analysis and Research) have launched an international legal battle, asking the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to analyse whether the legal reforms in Morelos violate the Organisation of American States (OAS) conventions on human rights ratified by Mexico.

These are the American Convention on Human Rights, which went into effect in 1978 and was ratified by Mexico in 1981, and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, adopted in 1994 and ratified by Mexico in 1998.

The Washington-based IACHR has accepted the case, and will ask the Mexican administration of conservative President Felipe Calderón to submit reports on the issue. Based on that information, it will decide whether or not to make an official pronouncement on the case.

“Morelos is not an isolated case,” said Díaz. “There is a systematic violation of the rights of women who live in the states that have adopted legal reforms. This is state or institutional violence.”

Since abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy was legalised by the Mexico City legislature for residents of that city in 2007, some 23,500 women have had abortions there.

In August 2008, the Supreme Court upheld the Mexico City law, which had been challenged by the federal Attorney General’s Office and National Human Rights Commission. The Court ruled that the law was not unconstitutional.

Activists are especially concerned about the situation in the central state of Guanajuato, where 130 women have been prosecuted and sentenced for having abortions between 2000 and 2008. In that state, abortion is punishable by six months to three years in prison.

In this country of over 107 million people, an estimated 880,000 abortions are carried out annually, according to a study presented in 2008 by the Colegio de México, the Mexico office of the Population Council and the Guttmacher Institute in the United States.

The study found that an average of 33 abortions a year are performed for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 – higher than the average reported for developing countries, which is 29 abortions a year per 1,000 women of reproductive age.

Díaz said the plan is to get groups of women to ask the IACHR to assess the anti-abortion legal reforms in each state where they are adopted.

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