The difficulties of accessing a safe abortion procedure in Mexico

Women must travel to the capital, the only place where terminations are allowed until the 12th week

Daniela, Rosa and Elena do not know one another, but they all have something in common: one day, they were forced to leave their homes and travel to the Mexican capital to get an abortion. This is because a law that has been in force in Mexico City for the last 10 years allows for abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – something that would be a crime elsewhere in the country.

Mexican women marching for their right to decide.
Mexican women marching for their right to decide.REUTERS
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La odisea de abortar libre y segura en México

After a six-hour bus ride from Zamora, in Michoacán state, a nervous Daniela – she would rather not reveal her last name – walked into a public health center in the capital and found a waiting room full of people. The 23-year-old says she was surprised to see “girls with their parents, and teens with their boyfriends.”

Hers was a “very painful” abortion, performed using vacuum aspiration rather than by taking medication, which is prescribed at earlier stages of pregnancy. The latter option is used in 86% of cases, according to Mexico City’s health department.

“I thought I was dying. The anesthesia did nothing, I felt everything that they were doing to me,” explains Daniela.

Let’s hope that one day there are real laws so that women can make decisions about their own bodies

Tania Franco, Fondo María

“I was 27 and it was a difficult decision,” says Elena,  a resident of the State of Mexico who would rather not reveal her real name. “I wanted to have a career, to work as a biologist, to do something more with my life.”

Rosa, 29, who works as a store clerk in the state of San Luis Potosí, agrees: “A woman must be able to choose, and I would like states to have laws that let us make our own decisions.”

A total of 174,113 women like Daniela, Elena and Rosa have terminated their pregnancies over the last decade in Mexico City’s hospitals and public health centers, according to health department figures.

Of these, 28.8% came from the State of Mexico, which is close to the capital. Others hailed from the states of Puebla, Hidalgo, Morelos, Jalisco, Querétaro, Michoacán, Veracruz and Guanajuato.

Following the approval of the law in Mexico City in 2007 allowing for abortions up to the 12th week of pregnancy, there was a rise in abortions up until 2012, when the figure leveled out.

“In Mexico City, people are more open than here on the ranches,” says Daniela in a telephone conversation from Zamora, in Michoacán state. “If they found out, they would stare at me like I was a green horse.”

A pro-choice march in Mexico City.
A pro-choice march in Mexico City.CUARTOSCURO

“The fact of being there, of seeing other young women who are crying, is difficult. It’s a process that deserves attention and should be legal,” adds Elena. “I would like it if there were some kind of psychological care afterwards, because it gets ugly.”

Both Daniela and Rosa are going to get psychological help. “You let out emotions that you hadn't expressed before,” explains Rosa.

Most women who have an abortion are between 18 and 24 years old, single, with pre-university studies and no source of income. Pregnancy terminations can be performed for free at public health centers, or for over 8,000 pesos (around €388) at private clinics.

The Marie Stopes clinic, where the price of an abortion is competitive, has performed more than 130,000 procedures in the last eight years. The clinic director, Araceli López Nava, says that the criminalization of abortion on demand elsewhere in the country is “100% a matter of political will.”

Unequal legislation

Because of the social stigma that goes with pregnancy termination, some places deny women the right to an abortion even in the cases that are contemplated in the law.

Different state, different law

Paula Chouza

Legislation varies across the 32 Mexican administrative divisions. Only Mexico City allows abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. At the national level, only rape is contemplated as a valid cause for an abortion. Other states accept additional specific causes, such as when the mother's health is at risk, when the embryo has severe congenital defects, when there was artificial insemination without consent, and when the woman's adverse economic situation meets certain requirements. Mexico's Penal Code sets out prison terms of six months to five years for illegal abortions.

“There are states that are paying for these women’s trips to the capital, such as the health department of Hidalgo,” notes Regina Tamés, director of the pro-choice association GIRE. “In Jalisco, Michoacán and Hidalgo we are dealing with cases of raped girls who were denied the right to an abortion.”

The Beatriz Velasco de Alemán health center is one of 13 places in Mexico City that offer free abortions. Women must stand in line from before 6am to receive same-day treatment. Anti-abortion groups typically camp outside the gates to try to convince them not to go through with the procedure.

“They tell you they will do an ultrasound to see far along you are with the pregnancy, and they show you cruel images so you will regret it,” recalls Rosa.

Recently, 17 out of the 32 Mexican federal entities enshrined the right to life in their constitutions from the moment of conception, a move that could create conflict with current abortion legislation.

Sex education

In Daniela’s case, condoms were never considered by either herself or her boyfriend. “We were not very careful,” she admits.

After an abortion, public clinics insist patients go home with a permanent contraceptive method, most typically a IUD (intrauterine device) or a hormone treatment that is implanted under the skin.

According to the health department, 98% of women who have an abortion at a public center undergo this treatment as well. Daniela recalls the conversation she had with the nurse: “What if I don’t want either one of them?” “Then we won’t do the abortion.” Since it was free, she eventually opted for the implant.

I would like for there to be some kind of psychological care afterwards, because it gets ugly

Elena, abortion seeker

Although Mexico City remains a beacon of hope for Mexican women who want to have an abortion, there is still a lot of room for improvement. GIRE director Regina Tamés says that abortions after the first trimester should be allowed in specific cases, and that abortion on demand should be extended past the 12th week.

Tania Franco, who works for the association Fondo María, says that Mexico City’s regulations are “a bare minimum” that should also exist in other states.

“Let’s hope that one day there are real laws so that women can make decisions about their own bodies,” she says.

English version by Susana Urra.

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