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Landmark abortion decision
Lorraine Orlandi
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Mexico City lawmakers decriminalize first-trimester abortion, defying the Vatican.

Mexico City lawmakers withstood pressure from the Vatican and voted April 24 to legalize abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. The landmark decision, of 46-19 with one abstention, is likely to intensify the battle for abortion rights across the strongly Catholic nation and region.

“Assassins! Assassins!” cried opponents hoisting small white coffins and broadcasting the cries of a wailing infant over loudspeakers. Many rode into Mexico City from surrounding states on buses provided by Catholic and evangelical churches.

Held back by rows of riot police, opponents faced off with supporters of the bill, who cheered the measure, saying it will save thousands of mostly poor women from seeking back-alley abortions that frequently result in injury or death.

Weeks of fiery controversy ahead of the vote reached as far as Rome. In a statement days before the vote, the Vatican labeled abortion and euthanasia — another issue being debated in Mexico — forms of “terrorism.”

A Mexican bishop warned lawmakers who supported the abortion bill that they would face excommunication, along with women who receive abortions under the law and those who perform them.

In April 26 Mexico City’s leftist Mayor Marcelo Ebrard signed the bill into law. Opponents vowed to challenge it before the nation’s Supreme Court, while feminists and rights leaders said the legislation opens a way to similar initiatives elsewhere in Mexico and Latin America.

Trendsetting progressive policies
The vote “puts Mexico City in the vanguard in Latin America and in line with the most advanced democracies of the world,” said Mariana Winocur, a spokeswoman for the Mexican reproductive rights group GIRE. “We hope that it is the first in a series of such rights victories on the continent.”

In Latin America and the Caribbean only Cuba, Guyana and US Commonwealth Puerto Rico allow unrestricted abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Abortion is illegal in most Latin American countries except in certain circumstances such as when the mother’s health is at risk, when the fetus has serious defects or the pregnancy resulted from rape. In Chile, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic abortion is a crime under any circumstances, and Nicaragua joined those ranks late last year with passage of a total abortion ban that reflected the Catholic Church’s clout in the Central American nation.

While Catholic leaders and Mexico’s ruling conservative National Action Party, or PAN, cast the abortion debate in terms of the sanctity of life from conception, proponents of the bill called it an urgent public health issue that reflects the gap between rich and poor in this nation of more than 100 million people, most of them Catholic and about half of them living in poverty.

Unsafe abortion is the third leading cause of maternal deaths in Mexico City and the fifth nationwide, according to the international reproductive rights organization Ipas, headquartered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

More than 124,000 women were hospitalized in Mexico City for complications from unsafe abortion between 2001 and 2005, Ipas-Mexico said, based on hospitalization data from Mexico.

Rights activists say most of the victims are poor women who cannot afford to travel outside the country for legal abortions or pay for safe, secret procedures at private clinics in Mexico.

“We come here today to vote with our consciences despite those who want to condemn us to an afterlife in hell,” Victor Hugo Círigo, a lawmaker from the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, which controls the Mexico City government, said moments before the vote.

Opposition continues
Wendy Arayeli Hernández, 17 years old and five months pregnant, stood among other pregnant protesters facing a wall of black-clad police officers who cordoned off the legislature as the abortion measure was passed. She admitted she will struggle as a single mother without a job, but as a Catholic she vehemently opposed the bill.

“I cannot take a life,” she said.

A few feet away, Julia Klug, a 54-year-old mother of three, summed up the sentiments of other Mexican Catholics who differ with the Church when it comes to issues of reproductive rights.

“Here in Mexico there is a lot of poverty and hunger. It is more criminal that a child should die of hunger or lack of love than to have an abortion,” she said.

Wearing a fake pointed cardinal’s hat, she accused the Catholic hierarchy of tolerating child molesters among the clergy while opposing women’s right to choose an abortion.

“I am a Catholic,” she said, “but I am not a fool.”

The legislation amends the penal code to define abortion as an interruption of pregnancy after the first trimester, rather than at any point in the pregnancy, a unique approach to liberalizing abortion laws in Latin America.

It requires the Mexico City Health Ministry to provide free abortions to women who are up to 12 weeks pregnant. It also requires the ministry to provide public sex education and access to birth control, including emergency contraception.

While critics warn that Mexico City will become an abortion Mecca, city health officials said they did not expect an “avalanche” of abortion requests under the new law.

A similar proposal by the PRD at the federal level will likely face stiff opposition in the divided Congress, where President Felipe Calderón’s conservative PAN party holds the largest single voting bloc, though not a majority. Calderón, a practicing Catholic, distanced himself from the Mexico City debate.

Last year Colombia’s Constitutional Court expanded the list of circumstances under which abortions are legal, including cases where the pregnant woman’s life or health is in danger or the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape.

“The Colombian decision generated much-needed public debate on the adverse consequences of illegal abortion,” said New-York based Human Rights Watch. “The Mexican legal change will likely have an even more wide-ranging effect.”


Protesters in favor (left) and
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