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Ensuring Safe and Legal Abortion in Mexico
As a Mexican woman, I wasn't sure I would see the day that safe abortion services became a reality for women in my country. For too long, I witnessed the effects that unsafe abortion has on the lives of women and girls. Each year in Latin America and the Caribbean, an estimated 4.2 million women die from unsafe abortion and thousands more suffer severe injuries.
Despite these shocking statistics, governments don't always approach the issue of unsafe abortion as an urgent public health issue. As Mahmoud Fathalla once noted:
Pregnancy-related deaths are often the ultimate, tragic outcome of the cumulative denial of women’s human rights. Women are not dying because of untreatable diseases. They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving.
Yet even in a country like Mexico, where the Catholic Church has traditionally exercised strong influence, change is possible.
In April 2007, Mexico City legalized abortion during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. This was a huge victory not only for Mexican women, but for women throughout Latin America. After years of research and advocacy, public health experts, scholars, politicians, and advocates secured the right to safe abortion in one of the largest cities in the world. My organization, Mexfam, played a significant role in securing this change.
Today, public health centers in Mexico City provide women with abortion services, including counseling and contraception free of charge. Protocols and guidelines for service provision were established, and Mexfam trained health center staff were to ensure these services were high quality and without prejudice. This is significant not only given Mexico City’s population—20 million people—but also because the government provides these services to women coming from other states where laws are more restrictive. An estimated 25% of abortion services in Mexico City are provided to women from other states.
The decriminalization of abortion in Mexico City provoked other major milestones for human rights and health in the country: the legalization of marriage and adoption for same-sex couples, the implementation of rights-based sexuality education programs, and the creation of a law that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
How did we achieve such victories in a predominantly Catholic country? We used facts and reason.
The primary duty of governments is to protect its citizens. When it comes to public health, that means reducing the amount of risk of ill health and death among the population.
When it comes to the issue of abortion, the evidence is clear: access to safe and legal abortion improves health outcomes and eliminates millions of needless deaths and injuries. Since 2007, approximately 120,000 women have received abortion services from clinics in Mexico, all safely and without incident.
Ensuring safe and legal abortion is also cost-effective. A 2005 study published in Reproductive Health Matters found that, while the average cost per safe abortion in Mexico City ranged between $79 and $143, the average cost of treating severe abortion complications ranged from about $600 to over $2,000. The study concluded that increasing access to safe abortion would result in savings up to $1.6 million per year.
Even though our arguments are clear and evidence-based, advocates for sexual and reproductive health still face challenges. While Mexico City has liberalized its laws, thirty-one other states have yet to follow its lead.
In fact, seventeen states have amended their laws to further criminalize reproductive rights since the 2007 milestone. Outside of Mexico City, abortion is only permitted in cases of rape, but the conservative state of Guanajuato, for example, has denied every petition from a rape victim for abortion services. And according to Human Rights Watch, at least 130 women have been sentenced for seeking or providing legal abortion.
Despite these setbacks, we remain certain that reason will prevail. And we have justice on our side.
In 2011, Mexico amended its constitution after ratifying a UN resolution related to international human rights. The amendment compels Mexico to protect the human rights of all citizens and requires these rights to be universally applied. A right for one woman must be a right for all women, and every woman has the right to live her life as she envisions.
My dear friend, who is also a volunteer escort for women who travel to Mexico City to seek safe abortion services, once told me:
When women can come to Mexico City and access legal and safe abortion, they are incredibly grateful. They return home with their lives in their hands and with intense motivation to go forward with their plans.
To me, this is the ultimate expression of human rights. It's what motivates me to continue to work toward a world where all women can exercise these rights.