Mexico: Behind bars for abortion

Cynthia Arvide – WNN Breaking

Women in the states of Mexico don’t have much choice when it comes to abortion

Church in Mexico City, Mexico protest banner against abortion
A church in Mexico City places a protest banner outside to protest the legalization of abortion. Image: emilyjmc06/Flickr

In Mexico, the majority of women who decide to get an abortion risk death, severe health consequences and imprisonment. Except for Mexico City, where the interruption of pregnancy within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy was legalized in April 2007, the rest of the states in the country have severely punitive abortion laws. Only in the state of Guanajuato, between 2000 and 2010, 166 women have been prosecuted, according to a women’s rights organization called Centro Las Libres.

Although abortion is considered legal on certain exceptions, such as rape, malformation of the fetus or a risk to the mother’s life; in practice, it is rarely administered by the state’s health system and it is socially condemned. Most women who decide to terminate their pregnancies end up going to clandestine practitioners or attempt risky methods on their own. Usually, they only seek medical help after they suffer grave complications and their life is in danger. There are 1,500 deaths estimated per year due to unsafe abortions in Mexico.

Maria* (it is not her real name) was 19 years old when she got pregnant. It was the first time she had sex, with a younger boy she met in the cafeteria where she worked after school. Two months later, when she realized that she was pregnant, a friend told her about some pills that would terminate the pregnancy in the black market. She saved money and bought them but no one gave her instructions on how or when she should take them. Struggling with guilt, it took her two more months to make a decision. When she finally took them in the middle of the night, 22 weeks-pregnant already, she felt so much pain that she had to be rushed to emergency care.

A doctor found the pills inside her and accused her of inducing the abortion. “They said that I was a bad person and that they would inform the authorities of what I’d done”, she says. After dealing with the pain for hours, with doctors treating her as a criminal, and residents taking pictures of her with cellphones while they performed the curettage, the next morning she still had to face the agents from the prosecutor’s office. A few days later she was arrested at her home and she spent the night in jail. She served a nine month probation and three years of criminal records.

Other women aren’t so lucky. Yolanda, also 19 years old, told her story to Las Libres: “I didn’t know I was pregnant. One day I woke up, feeling pain and nausea. In the afternoon, I saw I had expelled lots of blood and blood clots. After a few days of this, my mother took me to the hospital. The doctor reported me for having an induced abortion”. She was sentenced to 26 years in prison for homicide of a direct family member (a legal figure used instead of abortion).

Her case, along with five others, was studied by the organization and was taken up by the state’s Human Rights prosecutor’s office. Their actions and pressure paid off. On September 2010, seven women, including Yolanda, who had been in jail from 2 to 10 years, were released on the grounds of a reform that reduced the maximum sentence for infanticide from 35 to 8 years.

Human Rights Watch honored Centro Las Libres’ Executive Director Verónica Cruz Sánchez in 2006 for her efforts in protecting women’s reproductive rights. “We live in an environment that criminalizes women. Meeting with this group of women let us know several things; first of all, it is an unfair situation to begin with, second, most women that have lost their freedom are related to cases of an ignorant use of medication. And in public hospitals, far from finding attention, the first thing the staff do is create an environment against her, and denounce her. Not only to the authorities but the society, starting with the hospital staff and patients”, said Cruz to Angela Heimburger, researcher for Human Rights Watch.

When the congress of Mexico City reformed the laws in 2007 to decriminalize abortion, it caused an uproar among the Catholic Church, the right-winged party PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) and several conservative groups. The Supreme Court of Justice ratified Mexico’s City’s reform in a historic decision that acknowledged women’s rights. But 17 other states began passing anti-abortion amendments to protect life since the moment it is conceived.

In Mexico City, over 58 000 women have had safe, legal abortions in public hospitals since the reform to the law, —22% came from the neighboring state Estado de México and 3% from other states— and that’s not counting the procedures in private clinics. However, thousands of women outside the capital don’t have the same opportunity. The most vulnerable women are still the poorest. Those who can’t afford to travel to Mexico’s capital and abort (or pay a private doctor who won’t report her), are most likely to have unsafe abortions and are then reported by their doctors when they seek formal health care.

It is hard to find reliable statistics of how many of them have been prosecuted and sentenced —especially since some are charged with homicide instead of abortion— but various women’s organizations and journalists have documented dozens of cases of women behind bars for having aborted, including victims of rape. According to a Human Rights Watch Report, “for many rape survivors, actual access to safe abortion procedures is made virtually impossible by a maze of administrative hurdles as well as-most pointedly-by official negligence and obstruction”.

In Veracruz, eight women who aborted were found guilty and sentenced from 12 to 15 years of prison for homicide in January 2010, as the Instituto Veracruzano de la Mujer reported. Their age ranging 20 to 25 years old; all of them come from rural environments. In Hidalgo, from 2007 to 2010 there were 31 women prosecuted, according to activist Otilia Sánchez. Puebla registers 30 cases, 9 of which have been sentenced. The list goes on for the other 27 states in the country.

Women rights activists are pushing to shed light on these cases and seek justice. Unsafe abortion still remains as a widespread public health issue but the matter also raises other factors such as sexual and reproductive rights, the social, religious and moral beliefs of Mexican society and ultimately their cultural view on women and motherhood. Women voices are coming together with the hope of being heard. Their demand is straight-forward: “Not one more woman dead because she tried to abort; not one more convict because she made her own decision”.


The public debate on abortion since it became legal in Mexico City is still ongoing. How are women receiving rights? This Latin Pulse – Link TV special shows the issues as they erupted on the change in the laws in 2007. This 28:29 video is a October 2007 LinkTV production.


WNN correspondent in Mexico City, Cynthia Arvide, is a freelance journalist who specializes in women issues, her stories have been published in Marie Claire magazine, the Latin American edition. She also writes human interest stories, travel features and investigative reports about diverse cultural and social issues in Mexico and every country she has the opportunity to visit.


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