Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalizes abortion nationally in landmark ruling

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the sections of the Federal Penal Code that criminalize women, pregnant persons, and healthcare professionals for abortion are unconstitutional, thereby decriminalizing abortion at the national level

September 08, 2023 by Tanya Wadhwa
Abortion legal Mexico
#AbortionForAllMexico #LegalAbortionNow. (Photo: GIRE)

On Wednesday, September 6, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) unanimously ruled to decriminalize abortion at the national level. The SCJN resolved that the legal system that criminalizes abortion in the Federal Penal Code is unconstitutional as it violates the human rights of women and people with capacity for pregnancy.

The ruling came two years after the SCJN first declared criminal penalties for abortion as unconstitutional and ordered the northern State of Coahuila to remove sanctions for abortion from its criminal code in September 2021. The ruling was in response to a case filed in 2018 challenging a criminal law in the Coahuila State legislation that punished women and pregnant individuals for terminating their pregnancy, along with those who helped them in the procedure, with up to three years in prison.

Based on the 2021 ruling, the Information Group for Chosen Reproduction (GIRE), a reproductive rights group based in Mexico City, filed a petition against the sections of the Federal Penal Code that criminalize abortion, with the objective that all women and pregnant people have access to safe abortions without being criminalized. On Wednesday, the SCJN analyzed this appeal and concluded that articles 330, 331, 332 and 333 of the Federal Penal Code that criminalize abortion will no longer have effect and, therefore, no woman, pregnant person, or healthcare worker can be punished for seeking or providing abortion services.

The judgment obliges federal public healthcare institutions across Mexico to provide abortion services upon request, even in states where abortion is illegal. The court also ordered abortion as a crime be eliminated from the Federal Penal Code. All local and federal judges are obligated to implement the SCJN sentence.

In most states in Mexico, abortion is still restricted and is only allowed in specific cases, such as risk to the woman’s life or fetal malformation. Before the ruling, only 12 States had decriminalized the procedure.

According to different official records, between 350,000 and 1,000,000 abortions are performed in Mexico each year. Of these, a third are performed clandestinely in unsafe conditions. Unsafe abortion is the fifth leading cause of maternal mortality in the country. The women who access these unsafe and clandestine abortions are generally the most marginalized—poor women, peasant women, Indigenous women, Afro-descendant women, sex workers, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and queer people.

National and international celebration

The ruling was welcomed by women and non-binary people across Mexico. Hundreds took to social media to celebrate, posting green heart emojis in a reference to Latin America’s flourishing feminist movement for abortion rights.

“SCJN decriminalizes abortion at the federal level! Thanks to a protection petition won by GIRE, all women and people with the capacity to become pregnant will be able to access abortion services at IMSS, ISSSTE, PEMEX and any federal healthcare institution,” celebrated GIRE on X, formerly Twitter.

“Today we have achieved something that a short while ago seemed very far away (but never impossible, that is why we are here). What a thrill and pride to be a part of this struggle and to be able to see, share and celebrate its results,” wrote Isabel Fulda, deputy director of GIRE, on X.

The National Institute of Women (Inmujeres) welcomed the resolution saying “Today is a day of victory and justice for Mexican women! The SCJN decriminalizes abortion throughout the country, a great step towards gender equality and women’s freedom. Up with the green tide!”

The Fondo María organization also celebrated the sentence.

Undersecretary for Human Rights, Population and Migration Alejandro Encinas Rodríguez commended “the resolution and the drive of women and pregnant people to assert their rights.”

The Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network hailed the decision saying, “We celebrate this important advance of Mexican feminist activists and organizations in guaranteeing the right to abortion in the country. The green tide is unstoppable!”

Amnesty International also saluted the “good news from Mexico.” It stated, “Abortion is healthcare. Healthcare is a human right. Thank you to all the amazing activists who have been fighting for this change for years. When abortion is denied or punished, people are being refused vital healthcare. There is a wave of legislation around the world moving towards decriminalizing abortion. We will not stop until everyone has the right to safe abortions.” 

Wednesday’s decision is the latest victory for women’s rights movements in Latin America and the Caribbean, a region where abortion is strictly regulated. Of the 33 countries in the region, only Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, and Uruguay allow elective abortion. Some countries allow abortion in circumstances such as rape or health risks, while in countries such as the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Suriname, abortion is completely banned and criminalized.

The wave of reproductive rights advancement across Latin America in recent years contrasts with the situation in the United States. In May 2022, a US Supreme Court ruling overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing the right to abortion nationwide, following which nearly half of the 50 States in the country restricted abortion access dramatically.