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Abortion liberalization in Mexico could mean FEWER abortions

15 March 2007

I expect editors to simplify what I write, and they do. When it comes to Mexico, and Mexican politics, and Mexican culture (AND the intersection between the two), the poor reporter, no matter how talented or informed is going to find their story simplified and at least partially misleading. Especially if they’re writing for a mass-market (and better paying… it’s pledge month here at Mex Files: hint, hint) news service like Associated Press

Istra Pacheco filed from Mexico City a story on proposed liberalization of the Federal District’s abortion law, which is very good, very informative, but misses a lot of the nuances and contradictions of the issue in Mexico. Of course, so do others

I swiped the AP story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

MEXICO CITY — Mexico City legislators are debating a bill that would legalize abortion during the first three months of pregnancy, a measure that would be the first of its kind in this heavily Roman Catholic nation.

The bill is supported by the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, which holds the mayorship and a majority in the city’s legislature, and it could be approved in the coming months, lawmakers said.

Mexico City, with a population of 8.7 million, is a federal district similar to Washington, D.C., with its own legislature.

The Roman Catholic Church and officials with the conservative National Action Party of President Felipe Calderon have promised to block the proposal. They claim that abortion violates articles in the Constitution protecting life and say they will oppose the bill in court if necessary.

Jorge Serrano, president of the National Pro-Life Committee, argued that legalizing abortion would encourage more women to terminate their pregnancies.

“The more women who have abortions, the more women and babies will die,” Serrano said. “The risks will increase.”

Under current Mexico City law, abortion is only permitted if the pregnancy endangers a woman’s life or if the woman has been raped.

Proponents of the bill say these restrictions force women to seek abortions outside the law. While wealthier women travel to the United States for the procedure, poorer women must remain in Mexico and have back-street operations, supporters said.

“Some even carry out the abortions themselves because they have no other alternative,” said Victor Cirigo, a Democratic Revolution legislator who helped the draft the bill.

About 90 percent of Mexicans consider themselves Roman Catholic, but many have increasingly liberal views on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

That last paragraph is boilerplate you see any time there’s an AP story about some change in Mexican law. What they need is one that says, “Mexico has a long anti-clerical tradition and only about ten to twenty percent of Mexican pay attention to church teachings.”

There is also a bill in the Chamber of Deputies to create a federal abortion law, but still more restrictive than the proposal in the Federal District to make first trimester abortions legal. 


The Federal District’s abortion law (“Ley Robles”, after interim Jefa de Gobernacion Rosario Robles, who got the bill though the District Assembly during her year’s tenure between Cuauhtémoc Cardenas and Andres Manuel Lopez Obradór) was – at the time – the best that could be done (allowing abortions if the pregancy was a result of rape), but the conservative media outlets (the TV networks are still controlled by the ultra-conservative Azcarraga family.


GIRE, a private organization similar to Planned Parenthood in the U.S., did its best to publicize the law, but rape victims (who tend not to report the crime, just like everywhere else) don’t often take advantage of it.

Women in Mexico City are treated for “late menstruations” (which are openly advertised) and a few states have relatively liberal – or even radical – abortion laws. Yucatan, which has a long history of feminist and radical leadership (the state was the first in the Americas to have elected women leaders, back during the short-lived “Socialist State of Yucatan” during the Revolution) allows abortion if a mother already has three children, and more mouths to feed would create “grave economic consequences.”

 The Catholic News Agency (in the course of lamenting the possible Federal abortion law) mentions “liberal” codes in Queretero and Baja California also.  These state’s codes are similar to Mexico City’s.

Even in the “liberal” areas, it’s hard to find a legal abortion. Mexico has a very good record in family planning and public health (compared to other “non-OECD member” middle-class countries that don’t have a socialist history, like Poland. And Mexico compares much more favorably in public health and birth control than other Latin American nations, like Argentina or Brazil, let alone Peru or Bolivia). The birth rate is down from seven per mother a few years ago to about two and a half. As a whole, the Mexican population is stable, or slightly decreasing (ironic, that the Mexican government recognizes it will be somewhat dependent on immigrant labor within the next 30 years or so).

Birth control is available, legal and accepted. But not abortion.

Cristina Alonso works at the Luna Maya birthing clinic in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. She says there are between half a million and a million abortions a year in Mexico. And while abortion is legal in cases of rape or a threat to life, the actual mechanism to get permission to have a legal abortion is so complex that it discourages women. Alonso points out that last year in Mexico City, only 17 legal abortions were approved, yet there are 30 rapes reported to police per day there.

(Women’s E-News, 11-28-2004)


With the worrisome news about the new Secretary of Health,  José Angel Cordoba Villalobos, who opposes birth control, you can expect abortions – illegal ones – to become more common. Thanks to available birth control alternatives, the abortion rate isn’t much higher than in the United States (where abortion is legal for the most part). The U.S. rate is about 21 per 1000 pregnancies. In Mexico it’s between 23 and 25 per 1000, according to “International Data for Evaluation of Abortion Services” and Plannned Parenthood (Reproductive Health Rights in Mexico

It’s the “illegal” part that creates the problem. Padre Amaro’s “crime” was having a 15 year old girlfriend. Having to seek an illegal abortion was his tragedy. The death tool is shocking :  31 perecent of deaths among pregnant women are the result of abortions (anti-abortion organizations in the U.S. cite the few hundred deaths from legal abortions as evidence of their danger.  Illegal abortions are much more dangerous, by far). 

 Illegality is not going to stop abortions. Poor Peru and comparatively wealthy Chile, both countries where abortions are illegal and where birth control is mostly unavailable, have double the abortion rate of Mexico. One can expect the number of Mexican abortions to rise – and many more maternal deaths if the Calderón administration makes birth control less available.


Andrew Oh-Willeke, a Colorado attorney and writer, with an academic background in statistics, summarized the situation for his blog, “Wash Park Prophet


There are actually fewer abortions per capita in the United States, where it is legal, than in Mexico, where it is illegal, and even using data suggested by anti-abortion groups, the death rate from medical complications from abortions in the United States is about 98% lower than in Mexico, where abortion is generally illegal. Using data offered by the medical establishment, the death rate from medical complications from abortions in the United States is about 99.94% lower than in Mexico. Either way, it is clear that the illegality of abortion in Mexico is a significant cause of death to women who seek abortions, while it is not very effective at preventing abortions.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Julianne Wiley permalink
    18 March 2007 2:27 pm

    I’m never confident about the accuracy of statistics on illegal abortion, since (1) people who perform illegal abortions typically don’t provide statistics, and (2) most illegal abortion practitioners are doctors who use the same techniques they would use if the abortions were legal, and (3) the maternal death rate for abortion in the U.S. fell precipitously 20 years before legalization, mostly because of the widespread use of modern suction machines and antibiotics.

    That is, it was not “legality” which cut the maternal death rate: it was technology. These technologies are inexpensive, and widely available in Mexico, both in the hands of MD’s and of other health practitioners (nurses, PA’s, certified midwives, etc.)

    Law has little to do with it, except that under conditions of legalization, abortion can be openly advertised and publicly funded.

  2. 4 June 2009 11:54 pm

    I am guessing that the abortion rate is much higher than reported, since it is illegal and illegally provided. I have read that as many as 17000 mothers (ie women who already have children) die every year in Mexico due to botched abortions. I cannot for the life of me, as the mother of two children, understand how this is “pro-life” or is helpful to anyone. Women of Mexico I am so sorry for you.

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