Mexico High Court Opens Door to Abortion Rights

In a landmark decision, Mexico's Supreme Court of Justice upheld a Mexico City law that ends criminal prosecution of women who have abortions in certain situations such as when the pregnancy is the result of rape or in cases of fetal defects.

Rosario Robles

MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)-Mexico's highest court has validated a state law here ending criminal sanctions against women who seek abortions in cases of rape or fetal defects. The ruling has raised expectations here that other Mexican states will follow suit.

In its first decision on the issue of abortion, Mexico's Supreme Court of Justice said last Wednesday that the so-called “Robles law,” proposed by then-Mexico City Mayor Rosario Robles, should stand. Under the Mexico City law, abortion is a crime but shouldn't be punished in cases of fetal defects, danger to the mother's heath, rape and unwanted artificial insemination. The law was challenged a month after its passage in August 2000 by the conservative National Action Party. Robles is now running for president of her party, the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party.

“In this sentence, women assume the character of subjects with fundamental rights and stop being seen as mere reproductive objects,” said Pedro Morales, legal counsel of GIRE, a pro-choice advocacy organization. “It emphasizes that, in specific cases, these rights-that is, liberty, reproductive autonomy, dignity, women's health-can prevail over the interests of the product of the conception.”

While Mexican women are rarely prosecuted for obtaining an abortion, the fact that it is illegal often leads the thousands who break the law each year to clandestine-and therefore often dangerous and unhygienic-facilities. Pro-choice advocates here believe that the court's ruling may now set a precedent, making it easier for women covered under the Robles law and those like it to obtain safe abortions without fear of retribution. Though it remains to be seen how the law will be implemented, Mexico City Heath Secretary Cristina Laurel has already announced that she will make sure the city's medical centers offer the service to women seeking abortions under the law.

About 1,000 Mexican women die every year of complications from unsafe abortions, which represents a significant portion of the nation's maternal deaths, according to GIRE. Since an abortion averages $500 to $1,000 in a country where the minimum wage is about $4 a day, teen-agers and young women have been known to commit suicide when they could not raise enough money to pay for the procedure.

“The most important impact is not whether or not they put you in jail, but all that it implies for women,” said Marina Bernal, president of Elige, Network of Youth in Favor of Reproductive and Sexual Rights.

In all 32 states of the Mexican Republic, abortion is illegal, but an estimated 220,000 to 850,000 are performed annually, according to the National Population Council and an investigation by Dr. Raul Lopez Garcia when he was sub-director of the National Institute of Neonatology. However, all of the states have provisions that decriminalize abortion in cases of rape. Some states, like Mexico City, have extended the list of circumstances in which abortion shouldn't be punished. These cases are:

  • When the health or life of the mother is in danger
    (recognized in 29 states)
  • When the abortion is accidental (recognized in 29 states)
  • When the fetus suffers congenital or genetic malformations
    (recognized in 13 states)
  • When the woman became pregnant as a result of an unwanted
    artificial insemination (recognized in eight states)
  • For economic reasons, when the mother has three children
    (only in the southern rural state of Yucatan)

The Supreme Court of Justice's ruling is significant because it now indicates that the Mexico City rules are constitutional nationwide. Robles, in an interview with the newspaper La Jornada, said the ruling is “a triumph for the women's movement and it's an advance in their right to choose.”

Despite Ruling, Barriers to Implementation Remain

But even though women rights advocates consider the court's ruling a victory, the Mexico City law remains tricky to execute. It gives the state prosecutor responsibility for authorizing abortions for women who were raped, rather than a judge after the rape has been proved at a trial, as is the rule in other states. This change in authority, meant to accelerate the process, was part of the constitutional challenge.

The Robles law, while not unique, is one of Mexico's most progressive and is a profound change because it will be implemented in a city that comprises almost a quarter of the country's population. Its validation by the court is likely to open the way for changes to other states' penal codes, said Jesus Zamora Pierce, a lawyer and president of the Mexican Academy of Penal Science.

Marta Lamas

“I think another important aspect is trying to do everything possible to match the rights of the women in the province to those of the women in the capital,” Morales said. “I think this sentence, which benefits women in Mexico City, entails a qualitative improvement in their legal condition that must be extended to women in the rest of the country.”

However, President Vicente Fox is against abortion and belongs to the National Action Party, which challenged the Robles law. Marta Lamas, a well-known feminist and the president of GIRE, pointed to Fox's popularity and said the country's political atmosphere might not be propitious to legalizing the procedure. If another, more liberal party wins the next elections in 2006, she added, legislators might consider reviewing Mexico's abortion restrictions.

Laurence Pantin is Women's Enews correspondent in Mexico.

For more information:

GIRE, Grupo de Informacion en Reproduccion Elegida, ACGroup of Information on Chosen Reproduction
(In Spanish):

Also see Women's Enews, January 24, 2002
“Women Energizing Mexico's Election Season”:

Also see Women's Enews, November 30, 2001
“Women's Rights Ignored by Latin American Courts”: