Pro-choice activists in Mexico welcomed Amnesty International’s advocacy for the decriminalization of abortion for women who have been raped or whose lives are in danger. Opposition to abortion rights, though, is firmly entrenched in the region.

Pro-choice rally in Mexico City in April.

MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)–Pro-choice activists here say they feel bolstered by Amnesty International’s recent resolution recognizing abortion as part of a woman’s right to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage the consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations.

"Because so many women are suffering, especially those who live in countries where (abortion) is not decriminalized, they are forced to have clandestine, unsafe abortions; the more voices that speak up calling it an injustice, the better," said Mariana Winocur, spokesperson for the Mexico City pro-choice organization Information Group on Reproductive Choice, known as GIRE. "It’s good for social justice, for women’s health and for women’s rights."

London-based Amnesty International winds up its leadership’s biennial gathering here from Aug. 11-18, to discuss and make decisions on human rights issues being worked on by the organization.

Before the weeklong meeting, Amnesty Secretary-General Irene Kahn toured Mexico, where she met with various human-rights groups, including some women’s groups, as well as President Felipe Calderon, who promised to improve Mexico’s internal human rights situation and implement judicial reforms.

"For some time women have been working to get their sexual and reproductive rights recognized as human rights," said Maria Consuelo Mejia, executive director of the pro-choice group Catholics for the Right to Decide, in Mexico City. "This helps close the gap between human rights activists and women’s rights activists. The position that Amnesty International has taken is very important in this sense."

Pro-choice activists in Mexico were buoyed in April when Mexico City’s municipal legislature legalized all abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Pro-choice groups also supported Amnesty’s stance, including Ipas, a Chapel Hill, N.C., organization that works with local health care practitioners around the world, and the Mexico office of Marie Stopes International, the London-based reproductive rights group.

Amnesty International, with about 1.8 million members, is the world’s leading advocacy organization for human rights.

Other rights groups, notably New York-based Human Rights Watch, have led a recent push to depict equitable access to safe abortion services as a human right. But Amnesty, founded by a Catholic convert in 1961 to advocate for political prisoners, has avoided taking a stance on abortion before now.

Ensuring Rights Free From Coercion

The resolution adopted in April by Amnesty doesn’t advocate abortion rights on demand. Instead it seeks to ensure that women and men can exercise their sexual and reproductive rights free from coercion, discrimination and violence, Amnesty spokesperson Suzi Clark told Women’s eNews in an e-mail. "In doing so it responds to the human suffering caused by abuses of these rights."

As part of Amnesty’s global Stop Violence Against Women campaign, Clark said the policy aims to recognize the right of women to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage the consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations. "The policy responds to the findings and concerns of Amnesty International’s global work to stop violence against women," she said.

For instance a pregnant rape survivor in Darfur, where sexual violence is rife in the war-torn region, is often ostracized by her community, Amnesty said, and in other countries ranging from Poland to Nicaragua, women have been denied abortions to save their health or lives.

The World Health Organization estimates that 19 million unsafe abortions take place annually worldwide; about 68,000 women die from botched abortion procedures, and 5.3 million suffer either permanent or temporary disability.

Disapproval from Vatican

Most Catholic and anti-abortion organizations labeled the stance pro-choice and condemned it. Amnesty has also come under fire from the Vatican, which called on Catholic individuals and organizations to stop funding Amnesty; Amnesty has said it has never received official Vatican funding.

"The action of the executive council undermines Amnesty’s longstanding moral credibility, diverts its mission, divides its own members (many of whom are Catholic or defend the rights of unborn children) and jeopardizes Amnesty’s support by people in many nations, cultures and religions," Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement in July calling for Amnesty to revoke its position ahead of its meeting in Mexico City.

Such pronouncements can carry particular weight in Latin American countries, where the majority of the population is Catholic. For instance in Brazil, the most populous Catholic country in the world, Pope Benedict XVI insinuated that politicians voting for pro-choice measures should be excommunicated during a trip in May.

In a June statement following the Vatican’s outcry, Amnesty emphasized that "these additions do not promote abortion as a universal right" that the group "remains silent on the rights and wrongs of abortion."

Amnesty’s executive board adopted the policy in April following two years of internal discussions over how it should approach the issue of abortion.

"Amnesty International’s position is not for abortion as a right but for women’s human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations," said spokesperson Kate Gilmore in the release.

Mexico City Firestorm

Similar criticisms from Catholic leaders were levied at the Mexico City legislature, which set off a firestorm after legalizing the procedure. Bishop Marcelino Hernandez, auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Mexico, said that anyone voting for the measure would be automatically excommunicated when the first abortion was performed.

The federal human rights commission, in conjunction with the Mexico attorney general’s office, challenged the constitutionality of the law in the Supreme Court on the grounds that the municipal legislature had overstepped its authority in passing the law. Abortion is regulated by state governments in Mexico, which generally allow exceptions only in cases of rape.

The decision is still pending, as is a case filed by the Catholic Church before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Abortion is severely restricted and even penalized in most Latin American countries. Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua ban it completely; most others allow it under limited circumstances, such as in cases of rape or danger to a woman’s health. Cuba and Guyana have legalized abortion. Bolivia is revising its constitution this year and may guarantee the right to life from the moment of conception, Time magazine reported Aug. 9.

Amnesty’s Clark said the group probably won’t take any more action on abortion, given that the issue is just one facet of its position on people’s right to "exercise their sexual and reproductive rights free from coercion, discrimination and violence."

Mexico City bureau chief Theresa Braine has written for the Associated Press, Newsday, People magazine and other outlets about Latin America. She has been based in Mexico City for four years.

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For more information:

Amnesty International Defends Access to Abortion for Women at Risk:

Amnesty International’s Stop Violence Against Women Campaign:

"Mexico City’s Abortion Law Hits Stop and Go Signs":