Monday, August 6, 2012

Abortion prosecutions on the rise in many Mexican states

Legalization in Mexico's Federal District has unleashed vigorous enforcement of anti-abortion laws elsewhere, with harsh treatment for women even in cases where evidence is marginal

In an increasing number of Mexican states authorities are electing to prosecute women who have sought out abortion services, or who are suspected of having tried to procure "back alley" abortions. In many cases health care workers are the ones who turn them in to police, for fear of being prosecuted themselves if they fail to do so.

The claims were recently reported by an advocacy organization known as Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (GIRE) - the Reproductive Choices Information Group - which said that Michoacán, Hidalgo, Puebla, the State of México, Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosí have stepped up enforcement of local anti-abortion laws.

Mexico's Supreme Court took up abortion last year, but by a narrowly divided vote failed to strike down statutes which criminally punish it (Supreme Judicial Court fails to strike down abortion laws). The highest tribunal in this country did just the opposite of what the United States Supreme Court did in the 1973 case of Roe vs. Wade. That ruling declared that a woman has a constitutional right to make decisions affecting her body, and that states may not criminalize abortion. No such legal principles exist in Mexico, and the country remains a patchwork quilt of conflicting regulations on abortion. Each of the 32 states may decide for itself whether to legalize it, and most are staunchly opposed to abortion.

It's legal in a few places like the Federal District (Mexico City, since 2007), and expressly illegal elsewhere (such as Baja California). Many states have no law at all on the subject, but they don't need one. Getting an abortion most places is difficult. A few Supreme Court judges, or ministers as they're called, have said that Mexico's constitution recognizes (at lest by implication) a right to life, or a "right to be born." Other ministers opine just to the contrary, and argue that the woman's decision should be paramount in every case. The issue will likely be revisited during the six year term of Mexico's next president, Enrique Peña Nieto, but it's impossible to say which view will ultimately prevail. The Mexican Catholic Church remains firmly entrenched against abortion, with no exceptions.

According to GIRE, a typical defendant in a criminal abortion prosecution is between 15 and 33 years old. Bail in such cases can range from 5,000 to 180,000 pesos - $400 to as much as $14,000 USD. Regardless of the amount, many are unable to post it and must remain in jail.

In some cases, it is not at all clear that the accused was trying to procure an abortion. Some women have reported that they went to a hospital seeking help after unexplained bleeding, or a spontaneous abortion, and ended up being arrested. In most cases, says GIRE, authorities take the word of health staff, not the patient. Some women have even been turned in by family members.

An attorney for GIRE says, "The Public Ministry (prosecutor's office) takes women into custody right at the hospital, dealing with them as if they were big time criminals. When they're stabilized, they're transported to court to make their preliminary legal response to the charge, and so that incriminating evidence can be gathered from them."

The attorney claims that blood and urine samples are taken without the patient's knowledge or consent, to test for abortion-inducing substances. Many times there is no forensic evidence, and women are held for trial "solely based on someone's testimony against them."

The director of GIRE says that the aggressive enforcement commenced in 2008, when legislatures in 16 states began adopting laws which declare that life begins at the moment of conception. All were enacted in response to the legalization of abortion in the Federal District, where the majority of the procedures are today carried out. Mexico's Supreme Court has thus far refused to strike down such statutes as unconstitutional under the nation's core federal charter, which supersedes state law.

"Before we didn't see this type of persecution, where someone is reported (in a medically ambiguous situation). Now health workers can lose their jobs, or be accused of covering up a crime, so they just go to the Public Ministry and let the authorities worry about sorting it all out," says the director.

Abortion laws have been the source of much confusion when applied in real cases, claims GIRE. In some instances, women who presented in medical situations which constituted legal exceptions were denied treatment. One of the recognized exceptions is that a mother cannot be forced to continue with a pregnancy which presents a clear risk to her life. But in one case where a 24 year old woman sought an abortion for just that reason, with documented evidence, she was reported to prosecutors.

"It's a cultural thing," says GIRE's attorney. "Natural prejudices against abortion were reinforced when the laws were passed in the states, which forbid the procedure in most cases."

Some stats and legal notes:

In 2008, Sonora, Baja California and Morelos passed anti-abortion laws. They were the subject of a formal constitutional challenge, but Mexico's Supreme Court refused to strike them down last year.

In 2009, 12 other states followed suit: Colima, Puebla, Quintana Roo, Jalisco, Durango, Nayarit, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Yucatán, Querétaro, Oaxaca and Chiapas.

In 2010, Tamaulipas passed an anti-abortion statute.

Fifteen Mexican states have no specific statute regulating abortion, but instead rely upon tradition and historical practice, which almost always forbid the procedure.

GIRE reports that in the entire country, there are 18 physicians whose exclusive practice is "ILE" -- the legal termination of a pregnancy.

Since abortion was legalized five years ago in the nation's capital, about 78,000 women have sought the procedure. Almost half of them were between 18 and 24 years old.

In the Federal District abortions must be performed within the first trimester, absent extraordinary medical circumstances. Between 2007 and 2012, Mexican health authorities say 58 legal abortions beyond 12 weeks of gestation were carried out in D.F., for a variety of medically approved reasons.

GIRE says that 83% of those seeking abortions report that they are Catholic.

In the country's just ended presidential campaign three of the four candidates, including Peña Nieto, said they are opposed in principle to abortion but do not favor criminal prosecution of women who get one. The runner-up in the election, Manuel López Obrador, refused to address the issue, although in March he was accused of being in favor of legalized abortion when Pope Benedict XVI visited.

Apr. 9, 2013 - Criminal charges for abortion soar in Mexico, with poor indigenous women the most common defendants
Apr. 20, 2012 - Mexican presidential candidates address thorny issues of abortion, same-sex unions

© MGRR 2012-2013. All rights reserved. This article may be cited or briefly quoted with proper attribution or a hyperlink, but not reproduced without permission.

Roe vs. Wade, United States Supreme Court, 1973

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