Women’s rights groups and allies celebrated Aug. 28th after Mexico’s Supreme Court voted 8-3 in a landmark decision to uphold a law allowing abortion in the country’s capital, Mexico City. The ruling could open the doors for other states to challenge measures that criminalize abortion. The decision is historic especially in a region where almost all countries severely restrict abortion or ban it completely.

The law allows unrestricted abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy. It was passed last year by the Mexico City Assembly, which also established free public clinics.

The right-wing government led by President Felipe Calderón, backed by anti-abortion groups and the powerful Roman Catholic Church, had challenged the law, claiming it was unconstitutional.

In their ruling the judges found that Mexico’s constitution did not explicitly guarantee the right to life of the fetus, and that those advocating for the rights of the unborn had to be in line and balanced when it comes to women seeking an abortion.

“By decriminalizing abortion, women are free to decide over their bodies, their physical and mental health, and even their lives,” magistrate José Ramón Cossío Díaz told the New York Times. Díaz voted in favor of the law.

Most Latin American countries allow abortions only under very limited circumstances, such as following a rape or incest and to save the life of the mother. Leaders of women’s rights groups say in most cases women continue to face restrictions even in those cases. Abortion is outlawed in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Chile. Last month a congressional committee voted down a bill that would have legalized abortion in Brazil.

Women’s rights organizations have been advocating for decades to legalize abortion in Mexico, which is known as the second most-populous Catholic country in the world, next to Brazil.

“This is a triumph of the recognition of women’s fundamental rights,” Maria Luisa Sanchez, an abortion rights leader in Mexico, told the Reuters news agency. “It will surely establish a precedent for Mexico, for the other states and for the region of Latin America,” she said.

Since April 2007, when the law was passed, Mexico City health officials say some 12,500 women have had abortions in public clinics and hospitals there. Women’s rights groups add that many of the women were between the ages of 18 and 29.

Between 1990 and 2005, an average of 13 women died each year due to illegal abortions in Mexico City, according to pro-abortion groups. Since last April only one woman, aged 16, has died during the procedure, after misinformation was given to the doctor about the length of her pregnancy.

Mexico’s President Calderón was largely silent during the legal battle, but his attorney general and the National Human Rights Commission sought to reintroduce a ban on abortion.

Meanwhile leftist Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard supports the ruling and many speculate he is preparing to challenge Calderón for president in 2012. Ebrard is known for supporting progressive measures including gay civil unions.

In other news leftist President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is attempting to pass a new constitution that could pave the way toward legalizing abortion.