MEXICO CITY -- City legislators voted yesterday to legalize abortion in this capital during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, an action that supporters say will serve as a landmark for women's rights in Latin America.
The move could result in thousands of Mexican women traveling to the nation's capital for safe and legal abortions. Catholic activists and the leaders of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, have promised to challenge the law in court.
"Women have self-determination over their bodies," Deputy Daniel Ordoqez said as he formally introduced the bill to the city's Legislative Assembly. "They have the right to decide whether to enter into motherhood. It is a basic right, and an exclusive right of women."
Mayor Marcelo Ebrard of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, has promised to sign the bill into law. The party made the legalization of abortion part of its platform in last year's regional and national elections.
Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guyana are the only places in Latin America that allow abortion on demand. But a subculture of illegal and often unsafe abortions exists in nearly every country in the overwhelmingly Catholic region.
The bill passed on a 46-19 vote despite the PAN's fierce opposition. PRD supporters said the law was meant to address a widespread and hidden public health crisis: the deaths of thousands of women in the city each year from illegal and unsafe abortions.
When the vote was completed, several abortion activists in the balcony broke into cheers and a chant of "Yes, we did it!"
"It's going to make an enormous difference for women in Mexico City in their everyday lives," said Lilian Sepulveda, an attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York specializing on Latin America. "This debate has shifted the focus to the realm of women's health. It's not a taboo anymore. That's progress."
A conservative-backed proposal to delay a vote on the bill and instead schedule a popular referendum on the issue was easily defeated. A PAN motion to adopt a minute of silence in honor of "the children who will die" thanks to the legislature's action was also defeated.
"A country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people how to love," said PAN Deputy Jose Antonio Zepeda. "It is teaching its citizens how to use violence to obtain what they want."
More than 8 million people live in Mexico City and at least 40 million more live within a day's drive or bus ride. Federal Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos said yesterday that there was nothing to prevent residents of other Mexican states from coming to the capital to seek legal abortions at private and public clinics.
Cordova, a fierce abortion opponent, said in a radio interview that the new law will likely tie the hands of federal officials in the city. Among other things, doctors would likely be free to establish abortion clinics here.
"They will be like any other facility," Cordova said. "They will have to meet the sanitary conditions to guarantee proper care of the patients."
The vote legalizing abortion came after an emotional and often philosophical six-hour debate. Supporters of the bill more than once quoted the French feminist Simone de Beauvior; opponents cited biologists and international treaties Mexico had ratified, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"It is undeniable that an individual is a human being from the moment of conception," said PAN deputy Paula Adriana Soto Maldonado, who said the "right to life, liberty and security of person" outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also applied to the unborn.
Though Mexico is overwhelmingly Catholic, recent polls in the daily newspapers Reforma and Excelsior showed a majority of Mexico City residents backed the legalization.
"Today is a triumph for democracy," said Consuelo Mejia of Catholics for the Right to Choose. "It is a triumph for all women and above all for the poorest."
President Felipe Calderon, whose National Action Party is opposed to abortion, has distanced himself from the debate over the city legislation.
But this week first lady Margarita Zavala joined the chorus of conservative voices calling on legislators to reject the bill. Abortion, Zavala said, "is the rule of the strong over the weak and is a denial of our future."
In a letter to Mexican bishops, Pope Benedict XVI urged opposing the proposed law.
Hector Tobar writes for the Los Angeles Times.