published : 2023-09-07

Mexico Ends Federal Ban on Abortion, but State Restrictions Remain

Majority of Mexico’s states still criminalize abortion

A woman holding a sign that says 'Legal, safe, and free abortion' during an abortion rights protest in Mexico City. (Photo taken with Nikon D850)

A recent Mexican Supreme Court ruling has struck down all federal criminal penalties for abortion, marking a significant step towards widening access to the procedure. However, state restrictions on abortion still exist in the country.

The high court's decision, announced on Wednesday, mandates the removal of abortion from the federal penal code. It also requires all federal health institutions, including the public health service, to provide abortion services to anyone who requests it.

This ruling has the potential to grant access to millions of Mexicans, particularly those who are covered by the social security service and other federal institutions that provide healthcare to formal economy workers.

The Information Group for Chosen Reproduction (GIRE) celebrated the ruling, stating that no woman, pregnant person, or health worker can be punished for seeking or providing an abortion.

While abortions are not widely prosecuted as a crime in Mexico, many doctors refuse to perform them due to legal concerns.

It is worth noting that despite the Supreme Court ruling, about 20 Mexican states still criminalize abortion. However, advocates for abortion rights are expected to seek support from state judges based on the logic of the federal ruling.

The ruling has sparked celebration among supporters of reproductive rights in Mexico, with many expressing their joy on social media platforms. Mexico’s National Institute for Women called it a 'big step' towards gender equality.

Supporters of reproductive rights celebrating the Mexican Supreme Court ruling on the decriminalization of abortion. (Photo taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV)

Sen. Olga Sánchez Cordero, a former Supreme Court justice, praised the ruling as an advancement towards a more just society that respects the rights of all individuals. She urged Mexico’s Congress to pass corresponding legislation in response.

However, there are opponents in the highly religious country who strongly oppose the decision. Irma Barrientos, the director of the Civil Association for the Rights of the Conceived, vowed to continue the fight against expanded abortion access, drawing inspiration from the United States where abortion laws were reversed after four decades.

The Mexican Supreme Court deemed the previous legal system that criminalized abortion in federal law as unconstitutional, as it violated the human rights of women and those with the ability to gestate.

This ruling follows a judgment from two years ago, where the court declared abortion to be legal in one northern state. Since then, a gradual process of decriminalizing abortion has been taking place at the state level.

Last week, the central state of Aguascalientes became the twelfth state to remove criminal penalties for abortion.

Although the recent ruling does not automatically guarantee immediate access to abortion for every Mexican woman, it obligates federal agencies to provide the necessary care to patients in theory. This shift is expected to have a significant impact.

By removing the federal ban, care providers in states where abortion is no longer a crime will have one less excuse to deny the procedure. Additionally, women who have formal employment and are part of the social security system or government employees will be able to seek abortion services in federal institutions, even if their state criminalizes the act.

Protesters demanding gender equality and reproductive rights in Mexico. (Photo taken with Sony Alpha a7 III)

Fernanda Díaz de León, sub-director and legal expert for the women’s rights group IPAS, acknowledged the importance of this step. However, she emphasized the need to observe how it will be implemented and the extent of its reach.

Latin America has witnessed a trend towards easing abortion restrictions in recent years, often referred to as the 'green wave.' In contrast, parts of the United States have seen increasing limitations imposed on abortion access by conservative lawmakers and governors.

The future of abortion rights in the United States is uncertain due to political divisions, making a nationwide ban or legalization unlikely in the near future. Currently, 15 American states ban abortion throughout pregnancy, with limited exceptions, and two additional states prohibit it after cardiac activity is detected, typically around six weeks into pregnancy.

Observers in Mexico believe it will take time to fully understand the implications of the recent Supreme Court ruling. While progress has been made, resistance to expanded abortion access still persists in conservative areas.

The journey towards reproductive rights in Mexico continues, with advocates striving to change legislation on a state-by-state basis.