When I moved to Mexico three years ago I didn’t have a clue about the country’s abortion legislation or practice. It wasn’t a topic that I would discuss with my friends or family and my Spanish was lousy enough to keep me ignorant — I could understand only half of what I read in the newspapers or heard on TV.
Then, in October 2014, about a year after my arrival in Mexico, a 14-year-old girl named Rosa was denied access to abortion and her case caught my attention. I was surprised that the authorities would oblige an adolescent to keep an unwanted baby. But when I found out that the pregnancy was a result of incest and that the abuser was her father, I wasn’t just surprised, I was appalled. The judge who refused to give permission offered an absurd explanation — the pregnancy exceeded the time limit established by law. Instead of 12, Rosa was 16 weeks pregnant.
Since Rosa’s case, I became more attentive about abortion-related news. Newspapers seemed to be publishing more stories about girls who had been raped, and who had been denied access to abortion, just like Rosa. There were more stories about abortions not being permitted, even when the woman’s health was in danger. The radio seemed to be transmitting more politicians’ speeches, that were advising women to keep their legs crossed. Internet news portals were writing about passing laws that would restrict women’s reproductive rights even more. It became obvious to me that the majority of Mexico had developed a hostile attitude toward abortion and the women who consider it. To understand more about the issue I decided to investigate it.
Mexico has without a doubt the most strict abortion legislation in North America. Abortion in Mexico is generally a crime and its legal accessibility varies from state to state.
In 2007, Mexico City became the only place where a woman could be granted a first trimester abortion for her own reasons. In some other states risks to the woman’s life or health, fetal malformations, non-consensual artificial insemination and a difficult economic situation could be considered good reasons to grant an abortion, but in the majority of the country, the only reason is rape.
Nevertheless, these reasons often don’t hold any weight, as medical personnel or law enforcement officers can approve or deny an abortion according to their own personal opinion. In the case of pregnancy as a result of rape, some states require the woman to fulfill additional conditions that may obstruct her from being able to abort. For instance, she must report the rape to the police first. She needs to acquire a judge’s authorization and/or her pregnancy cannot have exceeded a maximum amount of weeks, which is normally set at 12 weeks.
So as the Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE) — the most important national organization in the field of women’s reproductive rights in Mexico — has plainly stated: women have a legal right to abortion, but they are often unable to put it into effect.
When I was searching for information about abortion legislation in Mexico I stumbled across an NBC News article about a woman who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing a fetus. I thought this was a pretty cruel sentence, but what was more astonishing to me was the fact that the story wasn’t taking place in Mexico, but in it’s northern neighbor instead, the United States. So do US laws prohibit abortion as well?
Women in the US have a Constitutionally-protected right to abort until the moment of fetal viability, which, depending on individual state regulations, could range between 19 and 28 weeks. And they are supposedly able to abort free from government interference. However, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a substantial number of US states have become overtly hostile in the last decade about abortion regulation. So nowadays, women in the US are encountering more and more obstacles.
While in some states, such as Alaska, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, women have to get pre-abortion counseling that is often medically misleading, in others, like Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee, they are required to make two trips to the clinic so they will hopefully change their mind. States like Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, Ohio and Pennsylvania prohibit Medicaid from funding an abortion altogether — except in the cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest. Some states like Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Utah have even restricted abortion coverage from private health insurance plans. Then there are the states that require a woman to look at an ultrasound of the fetus before going through with the procedure like Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin — and in all of these states, the doctor is forced to describe the ultrasound verbally.
All of this research on the hardships that US women face when it comes to abortion led me to wonder: What about Canada? Well, if Mexico is the most oppressive North American country regarding abortion limitation and the US is considerably less so, but still very restrictive, Canada has to be the most liberal North American country when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. And I was right, Canada decriminalized abortion in 1988 and it became one of the few countries in the world with no legal restrictions on the matter.
But how do legal regulations convert into practice? Is the number of abortions higher in Canada than in the other two countries because Canadian women seem to have more reproductive freedoms?
The numbers can never be exact because not all abortions are reported — many are done illegally or at home — but to answer the above question, no.
In Canada, the reported abortion rate per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 in 2014 was 11.6 abortions, while in the US, two years earlier, the official number was slightly higher at 13.2 abortions. But the data for Mexico for 2006 shows that 33 out of 1,000 women between 15 and 44 years of age had an abortion. If abortion in Mexico is prohibited, more so than the US and Canada, why is the abortion rate so much higher there?
Mexican health professionals explain that only a handful of abortions are conducted legally. The majority of women who have an abortion in Mexico use a medically unacceptable method.
In order to terminate their pregnancy Mexican women drink rue tea in large quantities, introduce herbs into the vagina, use knitting needles or attend clandestine abortion facilities. All of these methods are unhealthy and dangerous and can severely damage a woman’s health or even end her life. According to GIRE, unsafe abortion continues to be a major cause of maternal mortality in Mexico. Between 1990 and 2013, more than 2,100 women died because of it.
It seems that the only safe method for a woman in Mexico to terminate an early stage pregnancy is to take pills.
“Women can do it at home without any complications or side effects and nobody has to know it,” says Carolina, the creator and administrator of the internet page necesitoabortar.tumbrl.com, which propagates abortion with misoprostol, a drug that for decades has been widely used for this purpose all over the world. The page offers information about the whole process. It tells you how to buy pills in a pharmacy without being rejected by a suspicious seller. (Anybody can buy misoprostol in Mexican pharmacies without a prescription because it’s used to treat gastritis caused by arthritis medication, but it’s illegal to use it as an abortifacient.) Carolina’s website will also tell you how many pills to take, what to expect for symptoms, how to know the pill is being effective and how to know if something has gone wrong.
Carolina, who didn’t want to reveal her real identity because she has been insulted and threatened in the past, virtually accompanies women who decide to abort with misoprostol. Women who usually ask for her support are those who have initiated the process while home alone, without being accompanied by a friend, parent, partner or anybody else.
“Women who are alone during the process are generally very nervous, so they send me a message asking me if it’s normal to have diarrhea, which medicine should they take for lowering the temperature and what movie do I recommend to make them feel less lonely. Or they just want to share their personal problems they’re having with their family because it doesn’t support their action or with a boyfriend who had left them because of the pregnancy.”
So Carolina patiently responds to their doubts until they finally send her a message: “Thank you, everything went well.”
A few weeks ago Mexican internet pages were flooded with abortion-related commentaries once again. The reason: an undersecretary for the Young Women of the Institutional Revolutionary Party published a hostile message addressing women who consider aborting. She advised them not to convert themselves into murderers just because of a one-night heat and even proposed a sterilization campaign, saying “… they do it with animals. Let’s see how many of them have the courage to attend.” And this undersecretary is a young woman herself.
This was disheartening, but I kept thinking about Carolina — another young woman — who is putting her own freedoms in danger in order to help others. She told me that women often want to thank her by sending presents but she always responds: “If you meet a woman who wants to abort, help her. This is the best gift you could ever give me.”
I think that is a sentiment that we could all take to heart, no matter where we live.