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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
Verónica Garzón, an attorney with the abortion-rights group AsiLEGAL, said López Obrador’s Morena party is quietly taking a progressive stand on abortion rights. “It’s not out in the open. But their actions have left it understood that they are headed in that direction.”
200 women in prison
An estimated 200 women in Mexico are currently behind bars for crimes related to abortion, including homicide, according to Centro Las Libres, a women’s rights organization.
Far more have been prosecuted, although not imprisoned. The police investigated 2,121 people for having an abortion from 2015-2018, according to GIRE, a Mexican nonprofit that advocates for reproductive rights. The legislation before Congress would not affect any of them because they were charged by state prosecutors.
“There is movement, and a context of women constantly demanding more. In this context, the law is one measure. It’s not enough, but it’s something,” said Estefania Vela, executive director of Intersecta, a Mexico City–based feminist NGO. “If this law were replicated at the state level, it could have a bigger impact.”
Governors in at least five states are considering initiatives to replicate the law, including in Hidalgo, Oaxaca, the State of Mexico, Chiapas, and Veracruz, according to Sánchez Cordero, the interior secretary.
Still, the push toward legalizing abortion in Mexico has moved in fits and starts. Mexico City’s decriminalization of abortion in 2007 spurred a backlash, with 19 states subsequently passing constitutional amendments declaring that life begins at conception.
In the state of Guanajuato, some women were charged with homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison, even when they said they had been forced to sign confessions after giving birth to stillborn babies. Following public outcry, state legislators freed the women but didn’t vacate their convictions.
Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez, a sociologist who studies the Catholic Church, said church leaders have become less focused on the topic of abortion under Pope Frances, who has criticized the overwhelming focus on the issue. “Seven years ago, if this law had been proposed, it would have been mayhem,” he said.
Soriano-Núñez also said Church leaders have been chastened because they failed to speak out against corrupt politicians who supported anti-abortion bans. The former governor of the state of Veracruz, which passed a constitutional amendment in 2016 banning abortion, was subsequently accused of money laundering and even giving watered-down medicine to cancer patients.
“It was an awful tradeoff, and my perception is that they are paying for it now,” Soriano-Núñez said.
While the Catholic Church’s authority has been weakened through Latin American because of sexual abuse scandals, it’s unclear how many countries will follow Mexico’s halting embrace of reproductive rights.
Most only allow abortion in the case of rape or if the mother’s health is at risk. It’s legal only in three countries: Uruguay, Guyana, and French Guiana.
In Mexico, advocates are supporting the latest legislation with reservations. “Amnesty isn’t a solution,” said Regina Tames, director of GIRE. “It’s pardoning women who have had abortions when this should be a health service guaranteed by the state. On top of that, some women would leave prison and others would enter because abortion would still be a crime.”
Miriam, who asked not to use her full name, said the years she spent in prison still haunt her. She slept in cells with at least four other women and lost her relationship with the father of her baby. Most painfully, she missed raising her eldest daughter, now 23. They are in the process of “reconciliation,” she said. These days, Miriam lives with her parents in Baja, California, and works at a beauty salon. Under the terms of her release, she can’t travel without permission.
Miriam said she sees abortion as every woman’s individual choice, and the legislation before Mexico’s Congress is a step in that direction. “But there’s still a lot more to do.”
Cover: Miriam, 49, in Ensenada, Mexico, where she lives with her parents. She was convicted of homicide after unexpectedly losing her baby while eight months pregnant. She was released in 2018, after 14 years in prison. (Photo: Guillermo Arias Camarena/VICE News)