CIVICUS speaks with Verónica Esparza and Rebeca Lorea, respectively lawyer and researcher and Public Policy Advocacy Coordinator at Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE, Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida), about the significance of recent Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights, and sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico. GIRE is a feminist and human rights organisation that has been active for almost 30 years to ensure that women and others with the capacity to bear children can exercise their reproductive rights.
From left to right: Verónica Esparza & Rebeca Lorea
What is the situation of sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico?
Currently, women and other people with the capacity to bear children do not find optimal conditions in Mexico to decide about their reproductive life: there are a high number of pregnant girls and adolescents, affected by a serious context of sexual violence that the state continues to fail to remedy; obstacles to access services such as emergency contraception and abortion in cases of rape; the criminalisation of women and other pregnant people who have abortions; daily obstetric violence during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum; and women who die in childbirth from preventable causes.
The structural failures of the health system are compounded by the fact that the majority of people in Mexico are employed in the informal sector, which limits their access to social security and therefore to benefits such as maternity leave and childcare. Women, who continue to play the biggest role in household and care work, bear the brunt of this lack of access to services, which particularly affects those who experience multiple discriminations, such as girls and adolescents, Indigenous women and people with disabilities.
What does GIRE understand reproductive justice to mean, and how do you work to advance it?
GIRE understands reproductive justice as the set of social, political and economic factors that give women and others who can get pregnant power and self-determination over their reproductive life. To achieve this, it is essential for the state to guarantee these people’s human rights, taking into account the discrimination and structural inequalities that affect their health, rights and control over their lives, and for it to generate optimal conditions for autonomous decision-making.
It is no longer sufficient to understand reproductive rights in terms of legally defined individual freedoms, while ignoring the barriers that limit the effective access of certain populations to these rights. Reproductive justice is a more inclusive analytical framework because it links reproductive rights to the social, political and economic inequalities that affect people’s ability to access reproductive health services and effectively exercise their reproductive rights.
GIRE has worked for almost 30 years to defend and promote reproductive justice in Mexico, making visible the normative and structural obstacles that women and others with the capacity to bear children face in fully exercising their human rights, and promoting change through a comprehensive strategy that includes legal support, communications, the demand for comprehensive reparation for violations of reproductive rights, including non-repetition guarantees at both the federal and local levels, and the collection of data to feed into our work.
Our priority issues are contraception, abortion, obstetric violence, maternal death, assisted reproduction and work-life balance. While we focus on sex and gender discrimination faced by women and girls in Mexico, our quest for reproductive justice recognises that these variables intersect with other forms of discrimination, such as class, age, disability and ethnicity. In addition, we recognise that the discrimination faced by women and others with reproductive capacity affects not only them, but also their communities, and particularly their families.
What is the significance of the two recent Supreme Court rulings on reproductive rights?
In the struggle for legal, safe and free abortion in Mexico, the National Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) has played a fundamental role. Since 2007 it has issued several rulings recognising access to abortion as a human rights matter.
In April 2018, the SCJN granted amparos – constitutional protection lawsuits – to two young female rape victims in cases that GIRE had brought forward. The two women had been denied abortions by public health services in Morelos and Oaxaca despite the fact that this is a right for victims of sexual violence. The Court stated that this denial constituted a violation of the women’s human rights and that health authorities are obliged to respond immediately and efficiently to these requests, so as not to allow the consequences of the rape to continue over time. This implies that health authorities cannot implement internal mechanisms or policies that hinder or delay the realisation of this right. With these rulings, the SCJN reaffirmed the legal obligation of health service providers to guarantee access to abortion in cases of rape.
On 15 May 2019, in another case promoted by GIRE, the SCJN granted an amparo to a woman who had been denied an abortion despite the fact that continuing her pregnancy could cause her serious health complications. With this ruling, the SCJN recognised that the right to health includes access to abortion and ruled on the particular reproductive health service needs of women, highlighting the serious consequences of denial of termination of pregnancy for health reasons.
On 7 July 2021, the First Chamber of the SCJN ruled on another case joined by GIRE, of a young woman with cerebral palsy and severe limitations on her ability to carry out tasks essential to daily life, which were aggravated by a precarious economic environment. As a result of a seizure, her family had taken her to a hospital in Chiapas, where they were informed that she was 23 weeks pregnant. The pregnancy had been the result of rape when she was 17 years old. A request was made to terminate the pregnancy, but the hospital director rejected the request on the grounds that the 90-day gestation deadline established by the state penal code had passed. The SCJN pointed out that this time limit ignored the nature of sexual aggression and its consequences on women’s health, and reflected a total disregard for the human dignity and autonomy of a woman whose pregnancy, far from the result of a free and consensual decision, was the result of an arbitrary and violent act.
Finally, in September 2021, the Plenary of the SCJN analysed two pieces of legislation that had a negative impact on the right to choose by women and others with the capacity to become pregnant. First, it analysed an action of unconstitutionality (148/2017) on the criminal legislation of the state of Coahuila, which the Attorney General’s Office had considered to be in violation of women’s human rights for classifying abortion as a crime.
In a landmark ruling, on 7 September the SCJN unanimously decided that the absolute criminalisation of abortion is unconstitutional; it became the first constitutional court in the region to issue such ruling. The SCJN pointed out that, although the product of pregnancy deserves protection that increases as the pregnancy progresses, this protection cannot disregard the rights of women and other pregnant persons to reproductive freedom, enshrined in article 4 of the Constitution. In other words, it ruled the absolute criminalisation of abortion to be unconstitutional.
This ruling had several implications. Firstly, the Congress of the state of Coahuila will have to reform its criminal legislation to decriminalise consensual abortion. Secondly, it establishes a precedent, meaning that the central arguments of the ruling must now be applied by all judges in Mexico, both federal and local. From now on, when deciding future cases, they will have to consider as unconstitutional the criminal laws of all the federal entities that criminalise abortion in an absolute manner. In addition, the congresses of the states where voluntary abortion is still restricted and punished now have a set of criteria endorsed by the SCJN to act to decriminalise it.
In the same week, the Court also analysed actions of unconstitutionality (106 and 107/2018) on the recognition of the ‘right to life from conception’ established in the Constitution of Sinaloa. These actions had been promoted by a legislative minority and the National Human Rights Commission. Unanimously, the SCJN considered that the states do not have the competence to define the origin of human life and the concepts of personhood and right-holding status, which is the exclusive domain of the National Constitution. Furthermore, it considered that personhood cannot be granted to an embryo or foetus and then be used as the basis for the adoption of measures restricting the reproductive autonomy of women and other pregnant persons; this is unconstitutional.
Based on precedents set by both the Supreme Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the SCJN established that the main efforts of the state to protect life in gestation as a constitutionally valuable good should be directed towards effectively protecting the rights of women and other pregnant persons, guaranteeing the rights of those continuing pregnancies they desire, providing the necessary conditions for dignified births, without obstetric violence, and eradicating the causes that provoke maternal deaths.
What are the prospects for achieving legal, safe and free abortion in all of Mexico in the near future?
In Mexico as in the region, there have been several successes over the past decade in the struggle for access to legal, safe and free abortion, although many barriers and challenges persist.
In our country strong stigma still prevails around abortion, based on the idea of motherhood as women’s inevitable fate. This idea continues to permeate all state institutions and laws, and forms the basis for not only the social but also the legal criminalisation of abortion, which particularly affects women and other pregnant persons living in situations of violence, economic marginalisation and lack of access to reproductive information. It also sends the strong message that the state plays a role in reproductive decisions that should belong to the private sphere.
In most of Mexico, as in Latin America, voluntary abortion is still considered a crime. For decades, feminist activists, collectives and organisations have pushed for the repeal of these laws, pointing out that consensual abortion is part of the reproductive life of women and others with the capacity to bear children, and that criminalisation does not inhibit its practice but rather means that in certain contexts it will be carried out in an unsafe manner.
From the 1970s onwards, Mexican feminists have raised the issue of access to abortion as a matter of social justice and public health and as a democratic aspiration. Despite the forcefulness of their arguments, it took 35 years to achieve – and only in Mexico City – the decriminalisation of abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. That victory was replicated more than a decade later in three states: Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Veracruz.
In the short term, achieving decriminalisation at the national level is complicated because each of the 32 federal entities has its own penal code, so it would still be necessary for each state to reform its penal and health legislation to stop considering abortion as a crime and then recognise it as a health service and provide public institutions with the human and financial resources to ensure access.
In practice, in recent years both the narrative and the reality of abortion in Mexico have changed due to the increasing prevalence of abortion pills. A few decades ago, clandestine abortion – that is, abortion performed outside the law – was considered to be synonymous with unsafe abortion, but this is no longer the case. Now there are safe abortion support networks, and in contexts of legal restriction, during the first weeks of pregnancy women and others with the capacity to gestate are able to have an abortion with pills at home, without the need to resort to a health institution.
The victory of the Argentinian women’s movement in December 2020 has shown that alliances, public debate and the diversification of voices are indispensable in the struggle to expand rights. The exponential increase in safe abortion initiatives is an expression of the achievements of the women’s movement’s struggle for human rights and reproductive justice. The Green Wave, the movement whose distinctive colour became synonymous with the struggle for abortion rights in Argentina, has spread in Mexico and although access to legal, safe and free abortion throughout the country is still a long way off, in recent years the issue has started to be discussed in various legislative bodies, even in states with highly restrictive legal frameworks.
What kind of additional support would Mexican civil society need from its peers in the region and globally to achieve its goals?
Social support for the causes we feminist human rights organisations defend is indispensable to obtain achievements such as the SCJN ruling of 7 September 2021. The dissemination of our work and the amplification of our voices is also extremely valuable. Local, national and regional networking to share experiences and good practices has also proven to be a tool from which we all benefit. Similarly, connections with other struggles through reflecting about their intersections can strengthen human rights movements.