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Mexico: Many States Crack Down on Abortion

Guanajato, Mexico —The woman came into the hospital, bleeding, scared and barely out of her teens.But before anyone would treat her, the authorities had to be called.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

8th October 2010 04:44

Alessia Valenza

Source: New York Times


Doctors believed that she had had an illegal abortion, so first, a man fromthe prosecutor’s office had to arrive and ask her about her sexual history.Then, after she was treated but still groggy from the anesthesia, anotherinvestigator showed up and took her statement.

The investigation is still open two months later. Prosecutors are seekingmedical records to determine whether they will charge the young woman, whoasked that her name not be used, as well as the person they suspect helped her.

Here in the state of Guanajuato, where Roman Catholic conservatives havecontrolled government for more than 15 years, it is standard procedure toinvestigate suspected cases of abortion. But Guanajuato is no anomaly, women’srights advocates and some health officials say, since a broad move to enforceantiabortion laws has gained momentum in other parts of Mexico.

One reason is a backlash against Mexico City’s decision threeyears ago to permit legal abortion to any woman in the first 12weeks of pregnancy. After the Supreme Court upheld that law in 2008, 17 states passed constitutional amendmentsdeclaring that life begins at conception, even though abortion was alreadyillegal everywhere but Mexico City, except in cases of rape or to save amother’s life.

“It is a political response,” said Pedro Salazar, a legal scholar at theInstitute of Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.“This is a well-coordinated initiative. It’s not a spontaneous decision.”

Lawyers contend that rather than tightening existing antiabortionlegislation, the state amendments are aimed at preventing future stategovernments from possibly following Mexico City’s lead and legalizing abortion.

There is also opposition in some quarters to emergency contraception. About300 doctors working for public hospitals in Guadalajara, Mexico’s secondlargest city, and the state of Jalisco sought protection from the Supreme Courtlast year against a federal policy allowing patients to get the morning-after pill. The court has yet todecide the case.

The enforcement of the antiabortion law here in Guanajuato has created whatcritics call a climate in which any pregnancy that does not end with a healthybaby raises suspicions about the mother.

The fear of being investigated means that even some women who want to bepregnant but have complications or lose the baby “have to think twice aboutgoing to a hospital,” said Nadine Goodman, who runs a school for midwives inthe Guanajuato town of San Miguel de Allende.

Dr. Luis Alberto Villanueva, adjunct director of maternal health forMexico’s Health Ministry, said he was concerned that antiabortion enforcementcould scare many women around the country away from seeking health care.

“The intentional search for ‘proof’ in women with bleeding in the first halfof pregnancy diverts health workers from their task,” he said, “and driveswomen away from medical facilities, even at the risk of placing them inconditions of high risk to their health or their life.” He added that poorwomen, who rely most on public hospitals, were particularly vulnerable.

State prosecutors here in Guanajuato have opened 166 investigations forabortion in 10 years, according to women’s health advocates. Most of them donot reach a judge, but nine women have been convicted for having abortions.They were sentenced to jail, but paid a bond to finish their sentences onparole.

In states where antiabortion laws are strictly enforced, there can also be afine line between charging a woman with abortion and sentencing her for killinga newborn.

In the gulf state of Veracruz, the state women’s institute found this yearthat eight women serving sentences for homicide — killing their babies afterthey had been born alive — had either had abortions, which has a much lighterpenalty, or had miscarriages or stillbirths. They have since been released,according to the institute’s departing director.

Eight women in Guanajuato have also been jailed on homicide charges inrecent years, stirring a debate over whether the authorities have used thecrime as a way to pursue tougher sentences against women who had had abortions,or perhaps simply lost a baby during pregnancy.

When the cases were publicized last month after one woman was released onappeal, the national news media descended on Guanajuato and the women gavejailhouse interviews. Some contended that they had been forced to signconfessions after they gave birth to babies who were stillborn or premature.Their lawyers argued the medical evidence in their cases was too shoddy todetermine whether the babies had actually been born alive.

“The women went into labor alone,” said Javier Cruz Angulo, a lawyer whoruns the legal clinic at CIDE, a Mexico City university, which won the firstappeal. “There were no health services.”

The cases created such a furor that the State Congress changed the women’ssentences and applied them retroactively. This month, the women, who had beenserving terms of 25 to 30 years, were freed but not absolved.

Yolanda Martínez, 25, who had been in jail for almost seven years, walkedout with her fist raised. “This state is too tough,” she said as she emerged.“They accuse you of crimes that you never committed.”

Other complex cases have come to light. Earlier this year, an 11-year-oldgirl in the state of Quintana Roo was found to be pregnant after she was rapedby her stepfather. Because the girl was ashamed to tell her mother, herpregnancy was discovered at four months — too late, under a recently tightenedstate law, to give her the option of an abortion. The case fueled a debate overthe unintended consequences of tightening abortion laws.

The federal government is opposed to legalizing abortion, and Guanajuato haslong been one of the most reliable strongholds of President FelipeCalderón’s National Action Party. Still, the situation here hasraised alarm among some health officials like Dr. Villanueva.

Concerned that other states are following Guanajuato’s lead, he sent aletter to state health secretaries objecting to viewing women with healthproblems as potential suspects and warning against “trying to use healthworkers in this process.”

But state health officials in Guanajuato say that they are required touphold the law and notify authorities in cases of suspected abortions. Thesituation is no different, they say, from calling the police when someone turnsup with a gunshot wound or injuries from a beating.

“We treat any patient in any type of gynecological or obstetric situationwithout distinction,” said Dr. Héctor Martínez, director of health services forthe State Health Ministry. “If we suspect that there is something, we informthe authorities. We don’t accuse. We don’t investigate.”

23 Sept. 2010

Elisabeth Malkin
Article License: Copyright – Article License Holder: New York Times