Study Makes Case for Legalizing Abortion in Mexico

  (IPS)-Legal access to abortion, available since April 2007 in the Mexican capital, should be extended to the rest of the country, where the rate of illegal abortions exceeds the average for developing countries and the total number reached 880,000 in 2006, up 64 percent from 1990.

That is the view expressed by a study conducted jointly by the Colegio de México, the U.S.-based non-profit Guttmacher Institute and the Mexican office of the Population Council. The report, released this week, provides data and recommendations that are backed by women’s and activist groups that advocate for the decriminalisation of abortion.

The study, "Estimates of Induced Abortion in Mexico: What’s Changed Between 1990 and 2006?", concludes that the recent liberalisation of abortion legislation in the Mexican capital, which made it legal for women to terminate their pregnancy within the first 12 weeks, was a "major achievement" and that "much can be learned by monitoring progress in implementation (in the capital), barriers that are encountered and approaches that work."

The findings of the new study provide key data to inform the debate on the legalisation of abortion, not just in Mexico, but in other countries as well, including the United States, Gustavo Suárez of the Guttmacher Institute told IPS.

Fátima Juárez, professor of demography at the Colegio de México and one of the authors of the study, noted that the data recommends guaranteeing access to legal abortion throughout the country, improving public services that offer contraceptive methods, and increasing sex education for young people and family planning initiatives.

An estimated 533,000 abortions were performed in Mexico in 1990, and around 875,000 in 2006. The vast majority of these were clandestine. One out of every six women who had an abortion was treated for complications in public hospitals.

The number of abortions calculated by the study amounts to 44 percent of the two million pregnancies that according to official statistics are carried to full term each year in Mexico.

The rate of abortions in Mexico currently stands at 33 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. The new study reveals that this indicator is higher than the average reported for all developing countries (29 per 1,000 women of reproductive age), and also higher than the average for Latin America (31 per 1,000 women).

"Estimates of Induced Abortion in Mexico" demonstrates "that penalising abortion does not reduce its occurrence, and that a significant number of Mexican women are having abortions, even if it means risking their lives," said María Mejía, director of the non-governmental Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (Catholics for Choice).

"Women’s groups in favour of decriminalising abortion have always maintained that ideally no woman should have to resort to an abortion, because no woman feels happy about having to do so, but when they decide to do it and have no other choice, they should be able to do it with full guarantees," Mejía stated.

Mexico’s 32 states all permit termination of a pregnancy arising from rape, 29 states allow it when the mother’s life is at risk, 13 if the foetus is seriously malformed, and 10 when the aim is to protect the mother’s health.

Other studies have reported that back-alley abortions are the fourth or fifth leading cause of death among Mexican women.

Only in the capital is abortion legal and provided by the public health system on demand for any woman in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Human rights groups and women’s groups have found that even in cases of rape, deformed foetuses or risk to the mother’s life, obtaining permission for a legal therapeutic abortion is virtually impossible. Women seeking an abortion in such cases report that they face all sorts of obstacles, including outright discrimination and refusal by the authorities.

In many districts there are no procedures available to authorise and carry out an abortion in rape cases, and in others, the process is long and complicated, with legal system or health care personnel often discouraging or misinforming the women, according to the report "The Second Assault: Obstructing Access to Legal Abortion after Rape in Mexico," released in 2006 by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

But although Mexican law outside the capital stipulates that anything other than therapeutic abortion is punishable by jail, that penalty is rarely if ever enforced.

In Mejía’s view, Mexico has moved to the forefront on the issue of abortion, following an August Supreme Court decision that upheld the legalisation of abortion in the capital as constitutional. The municipal law had been challenged by the conservative administration of President Felipe Calderón.

Between April 2007, when the Mexico City law went into effect, and Aug. 15, 2008, 26,000 women have turned to public health facilities in the capital for information on abortion, and 12,262 have acted on that information.

Mejía argues that all women in Mexico now "have constitutional grounds to demand that abortion in the first trimester be guaranteed in all of the country’s states."

"While the Supreme Court ruling is not directly binding on state legislators, we believe that elected authorities have an ethical duty to amend their legislation without delay to guarantee the protection of the fundamental rights of women in every state," said Pedro Morales, legal adviser to the Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (Information Group on Reproductive Choice), a local non-governmental organisation.

Juárez pointed out that "scientific evidence shows that in countries where it is illegal, abortion is a major public health problem."

Citing World Health Organisation figures, she stated "that abortion rates are lower in industrialised countries where abortion is legal, in contrast to developing countries, where abortion is generally illegal."

Latin American and Caribbean countries, the researcher said, have the most restrictive abortion laws, yet each year there are approximately four million abortions, most them performed in unsafe conditions.