June protest for embryo rights reform in Jalisco

MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)–When Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in August 2008 that any state could legalize abortion, reproductive rights groups thought a tide would turn in this deeply Catholic nation in favor of a woman’s right to choose.

Instead, the states have become the next abortion battleground and the Supreme Court has been called in once more to intervene.

Last year, weeks after the court handed down the landmark ruling that allowed Mexico City to continue practicing legal abortions, state legislatures across Mexico began passing changes to their constitutions granting embryos the “right to life.”

The rewrite swept local legislatures with little resistance, some passing by unanimous votes. Many of the reforms include language that protects the embryo from the moment of conception with the same legal rights as a person.

Others, such as the reform that Jalisco state passed in March, specify that rights be granted to a fertilized egg. Thirteen out of 32 states have already approved the reform and as many as six more states are debating it.

Lawmakers say the changes are meant to head off any attempt by state governments to legalize abortions on demand after the Supreme Court’s decision. But pro-choice groups warn that the backlash from the states threatens to roll back the few reproductive rights Mexican women have won in recent years.

“The state congresses have put aside scientific arguments, the reasoning of the (Supreme) Court, moral dilemmas and the rights of women in order to ‘resolve’ a health problem through punitive measures,” Jose Woldenberg, a human rights expert and former electoral institute president, wrote in a May 14 column for the daily newspaper Reforma.

Overriding Rape Exception

The reforms could override a woman’s access to legal abortions in cases of rape, which all Mexican states have allowed for decades, activists warn. The human rights prosecutor’s office in Baja California was so convinced that this was the case, it sued the border state before the Supreme Court in January to overturn the reform. By granting all “conceived individuals” legal protection “as if they have been born,” the state is forbidding a rape victim from seeking an abortion and ignoring a woman’s fundamental liberties, the prosecutor’s office said in its brief.

The Supreme Court accepted the case and has yet to set a date for hearings.

The changes may even be used by health officials to prevent women from using emergency contraceptives, intrauterine devices, in vitro fertilization and any other method that some argue manipulates the fertilized egg, the prosecutor’s office and activists say.

For the same reason, the changes could put an end to stem cell research–which is permitted in Mexico.

“Our greatest concern is that women’s rights and their access to necessary health services will be reversed, abortions will be subject to greater judicial process and more women will end up in jail,” said Maria Luisa Sanchez, director of the abortion-rights group GIRE, which is based in Mexico City. Sanchez is a Women’s eNews 21 Leader for the 21st Century 2009.

Human Rights Complaint

GIRE representatives have filed a complaint with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and have helped hundreds of women file court injunctions and a lawsuit against the new constitutions.

Lawmakers who back the changes say that they do not reverse legal abortions in cases of rape, nor do they cancel exceptions granted for fetal defects in some states. Those exceptions remain in each state’s penal code and emergency contraceptives are integral to federal family planning programs, they argue. Some, however, acknowledge that further rewrites may be needed to clarify that the exceptions still stand.

“We need to make certain revisions, otherwise we will have a lot of (lawsuits) on our hands,” said Maria de la Paz Quinones, a Mexico City lawmaker who has been elected federal legislator for the conservative National Action Party. Lawmakers of this party, loyal to President Felipe Calderon, have strongly promoted the “right to life” reforms.

The main impetus for the reforms, the lawmakers say, is to prevent any other state from legalizing abortions in the first trimester the way Mexico City did in April 2007.

The Supreme Court’s ruling last August overturned a case brought by the federal government against Mexico City that argued the federal Constitution protects life from conception. The court found the Constitution did not do so and allowed the Mexican capital to keep abortions legal.

“It wasn’t clear that the Constitution protected life from conception. What we are doing is making sure it becomes very clear,” said Armando Martinez, president of the Catholic Lawyers’ College of Mexico. “You can’t have any young woman decide over the life of another person without consequences.”

The next step for the anti-choice movement is to pass a constitutional amendment at the federal level, which has already been introduced to Congress.

Nacha Cattan is a journalist based in Mexico City who has covered women’s issues for several news outlets. She can be reached at nachacattan@gmail.com.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.