MEXICO CITY—In one country, you can walk up to a pharmacy and buy pills over the counter to induce an abortion until up to four months of pregnancy. Across the border, private citizens can earn a $10,000 bounty for suing people who help a woman terminate her pregnancy after six weeks.
You’d be forgiven for confusing the two countries. The first is Mexico, the world’s second-largest Catholic nation. The latter is Texas, the third-largest state in the United States.
In a surreal twist, Mexico’s abortion-rights movement has notched major cultural and legal victories, bringing it to the cusp of decriminalizing abortion faster than even many advocates expected. In the U.S., the opposite is true: An anti-abortion movement finds itself on the verge of achieving its long-held goal of outlawing most abortions, as Texas enacted last week one of the most restrictive laws in the country, creating a precedent other states could soon follow.
The practical implications are clear. In some parts of Mexico, it’s easier and safer to obtain an abortion that in the U.S. Instead of Mexicans crossing the border to American border states for the procedure, Texans may start coming south to terminate their pregnancies.
“It’s easier to access abortions here,” said Isabel Fulda, deputy director of GIRE, a Mexican nonprofit that advocates for reproductive rights. “You can buy pills over the counter. It’s possible that people could cross the border to access abortion medication.”
Medical abortions can be obtained on both sides of the border by taking a dose of pills. But there are strict regulations on obtaining medical abortions in the U.S., and require women to go through healthcare providers. The standard procedure is to take a dose of mifepristone, followed by a dose of misoprostol hours later. On average, women pay $504 for an early medication abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
The World Health Organization also has a protocol for taking only misoprostol in order to induce an abortion — and that’s the go-to procedure for women who do abortions at home. Anybody can walk into a pharmacy and buy misoprostol without a prescription for around $22. The medicine is marketed for treating gastric ulcers instead of abortions. Mexico requires a prescription for mifepristone, which sells for around $30.
It’s common for people from the U.S. to cross the border into Mexico and buy medicines, one pharmacist in Nuevo Progreso, across the Texas border, told VICE World News. “Many people come. They are buying an assortment of medicines,” he said, including misoprostol.
Texas’s ban on virtually all abortions could drive yet more women to cross into Mexico to seek the pills. In addition to enacting a ban on surgical abortions after six weeks, including in cases of rape and incest, the Texas State Legislature has passed a bill restricting access to medical abortions.
The bill, which is before Gov. Greg Abbott, would prevent physicians from prescribing medical abortions to people who are more than seven weeks pregnant, and also prohibit the pills from being mailed in Texas. Under the bill, “any act of giving, selling, dispensing, administering, transferring possession, or otherwise providing or prescribing an abortion-inducing drug” would be punishable with up to two years of imprisonment and $10,000 fine.
The idea that Mexico could become a safe-haven for women in the U.S. seeking abortions is somewhat bizarre, given that the procedure has been illegal in most of Mexico for more than a century.
But in a sweeping vote this week, the Mexican Supreme Court court voted almost unanimously that it is unconstitutional to criminalize abortion. The ruling doesn’t establish abortion services in Mexico, but eliminates the threat of being prosecuted for women who seek the procedure and those who provide it. Ten of 11 of the judges voted for the decision, and one abstained.
"From now on, a woman cannot be prosecuted for having an abortion in the cases considered by this court,” said the Supreme Court’s chief judge, Arturo Zaldívar, in announcing the decision. It is, he added, a "new route of freedom, clarity, dignity and respect and a great step in the historic struggle for equality and the exercise of their rights."
The ruling arose from a 2018 challenge to a law criminalizing abortion in the northern state of Coahuila, which borders Texas. While the court’s decision only applies to Coahuila, judges across Mexico will have to take it into account, legal experts said.
“Today is a great day for women’s rights,” foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard wrote on Twitter after the court’s ruling. “I remember in April 2007 when Mexico City decriminalized abortion and it was my turn to enthusiastically support the cause. So much progress has been made in the progressive causes of our country!!! I’m very happy!!”
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the court’s decision “must be respected” but refused to opine on it “because there are conflicting opinions.” As a candidate, López Obrador forged a coalition with an evangelical Christian party that opposes abortion. Once in office, 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.
Legal abortion is still rare in Mexico. Only four of 32 states allow a woman to terminate her pregnancy during the first 12 weeks. Hundreds of women have faced criminal charges since 2000 for suspected cases of abortion, and dozens are in prison on homicide charges accused of aborting or provoking miscarriages. Thousands more have been investigated by the police, as well as hundreds of men suspected of helping women obtain abortion.
Still, the tides have been shifting, propelled by a strong activist movement and shifting politics toward the left. The states of Veracruz and Hidalgo legalized abortion in 2021, Oaxaca in 2019, and Mexico City in 2007. Some other states allow abortions in the cases of rape.
Part of the shift has to do with the weakening influence of the Catholic Church in Mexico, which faced blowback after Church leaders have failed to speak out against corrupt politicians who supported anti-abortion bans. The church has also become less focused on the topic of abortion under Pope Frances, who has criticized the overwhelming attention on the issue.
“The political movements in Mexico have never really followed the ones in the U.S.,” said Fulda, the deputy director of GIRE. “We are much closer politically to Latin America. And the court’s ruling here makes sense given what’s happening in Latin America.”
In the U.S., on the other hand, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Texas to enact its ban on virtually all abortions. In a one paragraph opinion, five of the nine justices said abortion providers didn’t address “complex and novel antecedent procedural questions" in challenging the law.
The court’s refusal to intervene has motivated and fueled hope within the anti-abortion movement in the U.S., which now finds itself closer than ever to its goal of curtailing abortion access around the country. Within 24 hours of Texas enacting the restrictive anti-abortion law, legislators in at least six states said they wanted to introduce similar bills.