Mexico decriminalizes abortion in historic ruling

Mexico’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the laws that penalize women and pregnant persons for terminating their pregnancy are unconstitutional. With the historic decision, the country’s top court decriminalized abortions across national territory

September 08, 2021 by Tanya Wadhwa
Feminists and women’s activists celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalize abortion at the Nueva Tlaxcala public square, in Coahuila state’s capital Saltillo. Photo: Leopoldo Ramos/La Jornada

Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN), on September 7, unanimously ruled, by the vote of ten of its eleven justices present, that it is unconstitutional to penalize women and pregnant persons who have abortions because it violates their right to decide.

The country’s top court took up the issue on September 6, to rule on a case, filed in 2018, challenging a criminal law in the state of Coahuila that punished women for terminating their pregnancy and those who helped them in the procedure with up to three years in prison. That day, eight of the eleven justices present voted to revoke the law. The next day, three other justices joined the extended decision on the matter and declared such laws unconstitutional. The court ordered the state government of Coahuila to remove sanctions for abortion from its criminal code. The historic ruling also cleared the way for the decriminalization and future legalization of abortions across the country.

In an official communiqué, the SCJN stated that “since a majority that exceeds eight votes has been reached, the Court’s reasons oblige each and every judge in Mexico, both federal and local, to consider that the criminal laws of the federal entities that criminalize abortion in an absolute way are unconstitutional, as are the criminal offenses that do not contemplate the possibility of terminating pregnancy in a period close to implantation, or the rules that only provide for the possibility of abortion as absolutory excuses.”

“Today is a historic day for the rights of all Mexican women. It is a watershed in the history of the rights of all women, especially the most vulnerable,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice Arturo Zaldivar while reading the verdict.

Later, in a series of tweets, Zaldivar congratulated Mexican women on achieving this integral human right after years of struggle in the streets. “For 10 years, I have been arguing that termination of pregnancy is a fundamental right. Criminalizing women, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, is deeply unjust and openly unconstitutional,” tweeted Zaldivar. “A historic day for all women, especially for the most vulnerable. The unjust criminalization of women ends here. Never again a woman in prison for exercising her rights. A hug to all those, who with their struggle for years have made this possible,” he wrote in another tweet.

Abortion is severely restricted in Mexico. It is legal only in case of rape. Some states also allow abortion in other cases such as serious risk to the woman’s life, fetal malformation, non-consensual artificial insemination and financial hardship. However, it is not always guaranteed.

According to official records, each year between 350,000 and 1,000,000 abortions are performed. Of these a third are performed clandestinely in unsafe conditions.

Before this verdict, only four states, namely Mexico City, Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Veracruz, had legalized elective abortions. In the remaining 28 states, it is punishable and the penalties range from the imposition of fines to imprisonment.

Now, with the resolution, women and persons who can gestate in states where abortion is criminalized, will be able to undergo the procedure with a judge’s order.

National and international celebration

Immediately after the decision was announced, dozens of feminists and women’s rights activists reached the Nueva Tlaxcala public square, behind the Government Palace, in Coahuila’s capital Saltillo, to celebrate the achievement of reproductive rights. The protesters placed green scarves, a symbol of abortion rights, on the statue of Nueva Tlaxcala. They shouted slogans such as “abortion is no longer a crime,” “first Coahuila, then all of Mexico,” among others.

Marea Verde or Green Tide movement, the network of feminist collectives in Mexico, celebrated the landmark decision. “Today the SCJN said ‘I support women’ and declared unconstitutional the incarceration of women for abortion. Today we made history. Thanks to every woman who raises her voice for all of us,” tweeted the feminist group.

The Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE), a reproductive rights group, also applauded the verdict. “Supreme Court’s decision is a reflection of a historic struggle of the feminist movement for legal, safe and free abortion. We hope that throughout the country women and people with the ability to carry a child will have the conditions and freedom to determine their reproductive destiny,” tweeted the group.

The National Institute of Women (Inmujeres) also welcomed the resolution and said that “this historic decision establishes solid foundations to guarantee the right of women to decide autonomously about their body and their maternity.”

The Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network also hailed the decision. “This is a great precedent that allows us to continue walking toward total decriminalization in #Mexico, but also invites other countries to move toward the same path, THAT of WOMEN’S FREEDOM. We declare that it becomes a law throughout Latin America and the Caribbean,” tweeted the network.

The Undersecretary for Human Rights, Population and Migration, Alejandro Encinas Rodríguez, also welcomed the ruling. “Historic day for the protection of human rights in Mexico. Every woman and pregnant person has the right to freely decide about their sexual and reproductive life; the State should not intervene in this decision, much less use criminal law to regulate it. This right is based on human dignity, the right to health, private life, reproductive freedom, autonomy and the free development of the personality. Every woman and pregnant person should be able to choose whether or not she wants to be a mother, how many children to have and when,” he wrote in a thread on twitter.

Encinas added that “from this Undersecretariat, we will encourage executives and legislatures to make the right to decide effective throughout the country” and stressed that “it is essential not only to decriminalize abortion, but also to guarantee free and safe access to it.”

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico also celebrated the decision, highlighting that “it ratifies the court’s commitment to women’s rights in Mexico.” The international body called for “this criterion to be applied throughout the country, and that no woman be criminalized again for terminating her pregnancy, in line with international standards.”

Decriminalization of abortion in Mexico is a milestone victory for the women’s rights movements across Latin America and the Caribbean. This basic human right is highly regulated throughout the region. Out of the 33 countries in the region, only Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay, and Argentina allow elective abortion. In countries such as Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, abortion is completely banned and criminalized.

In recent years and especially after the historic triumph in Argentina last year, the demand for abortion rights has gained momentum across the region. The feminist groups and women’s rights movements have become more adamant in demanding and achieving these rights. The achievement of the same in Mexico will surely give new strength to the feminist movement.