Mexico City poised to legalize abortion

MEXICO CITY — A legislative proposal to legalize abortion in Mexico’s Federal District (D.F.), the area that encompasses Mexico City, is encountering strong resistance from right-wing forces here. But its passage seems likely.

Abortion is generally illegal in Mexico. It is allowed only under very exceptional circumstances.

Deputies from the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), the Social Democratic Coalition and the center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) argue it is necessary to legalize abortion because its current, illegal status has led many poor women to undergo unsafe, backroom procedures. Thousands of women have died over the years from the resulting medical complications.

The D.F.’s Human Rights Commission reports that unsafe abortions is the third leading cause of maternal death.

Opponents of the proposed law, led by the Catholic Church, the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and Mexico’s small Green Party, argue that the bill to legalize abortion amounts to “the murder of unborn children.” As an alternative, Mariana Gomez Del Campo, the PAN’s leader in the district, wants the government to provide more economic support to women and promote the adoption of unwanted babies.

The church has already organized demonstrations to oppose the abortion bill and is threatening more if the district’s legislature does not halt its efforts to pass it.

However, the abortion issue has also divided the church. The group Catholics for the Right to Decide, which supports legalization, recently placed an advertisement in the daily newspaper La Jornada that reads, “Unsafe abortion is a tragedy for thousands of women in Mexico. Just in the Federal District alone, a woman dies every 50 days because of unsafe abortion practices.”

“If our bishops defend life since conception,” the ad continues, “why do they not promote marches against violence against women or the unpunished murders of women in the city of Juarez?” The group also charges that the church hierarchy is threatening to ex-communicate Catholics supporting the right of women to have access to safe abortions.

The PRD, PRI and women’s organizations have organized counterdemonstrations to support the legalization of abortion. Gov. Marcelo Ebard, a PRD leader, said he will not veto the abortion bill, nor will he be swayed by threats. “Mexico City has always been libertarian and progressive and this will continue,” he said.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, a leader of the PAN, and Jose Cordova Villalobos, his health secretary, have condemned the F.D.’s intentions to legalize abortion, but have promised not to intervene. Mexico’s health ministry reported that 88 women died last year from illegal abortions.

However, a group of 100 PAN deputies in the national legislature have launched an all-Mexico campaign to halt the legalization of abortion in the D.F. The Green Party has introduced a bill to increase jail sentences from one to three years for women caught using illegal abortion services, and eight years for doctors performing such services. In response, the PRD has introduced a bill to legalize abortion throughout Mexico.

Critics have also chastised PAN and the Catholic Church for being hypocritical because they have helped create conditions that lead to unwanted pregnancies and force poor women to turn to unsafe, illegal abortion. They point to the fact that PAN governments have neglected to promote sex education and the Catholic Church opposes sex education and condom use.

The Federal District’s legislature is expected to vote on the bill to legalize abortion before June. Given that the PRD holds a majority of seats, the bill will likely pass.

In Latin America, only Cuba and Puerto Rico permit abortion for any reason in the first trimester. Nearby Guyana does the same.

Since the election of the center-left PRD in 1998, the Federal District has been in the forefront of progressive social change in Mexico. Same-sex couples can enter into civil unions and enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples. In a country nearly devoid of social programs, the district has introduced income support programs for single mothers, the handicapped and the elderly without pensions and provided free medical care for the poor.

tpelzer @ shaw.ca