A shift in views on abortion in Mexico

The Baltimore Sun

MEXICO CITY -- On the five-hour bus ride from Guadalajara to this capital city, Rocio Medeles cried over her misfortune.

She was a 26-year-old single mother, pregnant by a man who was about to marry someone else. In the past, she would have been presented with a stark choice: Have the baby, or risk permanent damage to her health at one of Guadalajara's many underground abortion clinics.

But in April, legislators decriminalized abortion in Mexico City's Federal District, about 200 miles away. Since May, more than 3,400 women have received abortions at 14 of the capital's public hospitals.

"If it hadn't been for the option to go to the Federal District, I probably wouldn't have risked a clandestine abortion," said Medeles, who traveled to Mexico City for the procedure in September with her 6-year-old daughter. "I might have had the baby, although I probably would have given it up for adoption."

Abortion remains illegal in the rest of Mexico, as it is in nearly all of Latin America. A group of activists, most of whom are Roman Catholics, routinely picket public hospitals here to condemn it.

But in Mexico City, legalization is bringing a profound, though quiet, change in how thousands of women lead their lives. In a country where unwanted pregnancies often strip women of their independence and ambitions, the extraordinary number of legal abortions taking place every day is beginning to cause the procedure to lose some of its stigma.

"When people think of abortion, they no longer think of a hidden, shameful, illegal, clandestine and expensive procedure that is full of risks," said Marta Lamas, who founded Mexico's leading abortion-rights group in 1992.

Ana, a 22-year-old Mexico City law student, decided to have a legal abortion after much soul-searching and worry.

"I thought about being pregnant with my studies half-done, with my parents yelling at me, and my boyfriend desperate about money," Ana, who asked that her last name not be published, wrote in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times. "I thought, 'I don't want this for my life.'"

Ana's experience at a Mexico City public hospital included pre- and post-abortion counseling sessions. Like most women undergoing abortions at public hospitals here, she paid nothing for the procedure.

City officials say a range of women and girls have had abortions at the city's hospitals since May, including at least one 11-year-old. A quarter came from outside the city, officials said, some from as far as Baja California, more than 1,000 miles away.

Mexico's Supreme Court is expected to rule early next year on a petition to have Mexico City's law overturned on constitutional grounds. Abortion opponents are skeptical about their chances.

"It will be difficult, because attitudes are changing," said Jorge Serrano Limon, leader of the National Pro-Life Committee, the leading anti abortion group here. "The pro-abortion current is growing tremendously. At the beginning, there was resistance in the medical community. Now there isn't any."

Serrano Limon fears that two other Mexican states with leftist governments, Guerrero and Tabasco, might legalize abortion soon. Venezuela and Brazil could be the next abortion dominoes to fall in the region.

"This has been the bitterest battle because now we are seeing killing at a large scale," said Serrano Limon. He lashed out at Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard for signing the bill into law. Ebrard's public health department has worked to make abortion available to any woman. The only requirement is to be less than 12 weeks pregnant.

"The Aztecs sacrificed prisoners of war, but not even they killed as many people as Marcelo Ebrard is killing now," Serrano Limon said.

The votes of eight of the 11 judges on the Supreme Court will be needed to overturn the law on the grounds that it violates the rights of the unborn. Serrano Limon and others count at least four judges already in the abortion-rights camp.

Legalization supporters say that with each day that passes, it is less likely that the court will overturn the law and drive abortion back underground.

Many of the secret "clinics" that offered the cheapest and most dangerous surgical abortions (usually for about $400) have closed. Private hospitals that once charged as much as $2,000 for an illegal abortion have sharply reduced their prices, Lamas says. "The aura of sin, fear and economic extortion is gone."

Nevertheless, Ana, the law student, said the choice was not simple. "A lot of people can judge me for what I did ... but I made the decision to be responsible," she wrote. "If you decide to have a child, it should be because you want to, and because you can offer him a decent life."

Dr. Manuel Mondragon, the city's top public health official, said making abortion legal is a crucial public health issue because of the high rates of death and injury from illegal abortions: According to one estimate, more than 3,500 women died from botched abortions each year.

Mondragon, 73, says he has received death threats been labeled a killer. "I am a Catholic, my family is very Catholic and I have my personal beliefs. But when you're in public administration, that's one of the challenges."

Hector Tobar writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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