Mexico Leans to the Right on Abortion

Juarez, Mexico – A recent ruling by Mexico’s supreme court on right-to-life amendments in two northern states has pro-choice supporters fearful of a dangerous precedent that could fly beneath the radar of the country’s upcoming presidential elections. The decision by the eleven-member court, after just two days of deliberation, essentially criminalizes abortions — even if the pregnancy involves rape or is a threat to the mother’s life.

In a legal challenge raised by the Catholic Church and several conservative groups, seven members of the Supreme Court of Mexico ruled last week that anti-abortion amendments in Baja California and San Luis Potosi are unconstitutional. Mexico’s constitution, however, requires a minimum of eight votes in order to overturn state law.

Margarita Beatriz Luna Ramos is one of two female justices on the court. In 2008, she ruled in favor of legalizing abortions in the capital, Mexico City, which makes her ruling in this most recent case all the more perplexing. Ramos, who was appointed in 2004 by former President Vicente Fox, reversed herself by ruling in favor of Baja’s anti-abortion law.

Explaining her position, which sided with the court’s conservative wing, Ramos argued that Mexico’s constitution has yet to establish a legal definition for the moment of conception, and therefore cannot pinpoint with certitude the exact moment when life begins.

Olga Maria del Carmen Sanchez-Cordero Davila, appointed in 1995 by former President Ernesto Zedillo, is the only other female on the court. During the hearings, she raised concerns that allowing such laws to stand could lead to questions over the legality of contraceptives like the “morning after pill.”

Such fears echo those of pro-choice activists, who see this latest decision as leading to a slippery slope of anti-abortion legislation across the country. Currently, 16 of Mexico’s 31 states have adopted right-to-life amendments.

There is also concern that with the upcoming elections, scheduled for July of 2012, national attention will turn to whoever is most likely to replace the incumbent, Felipe Calderon. Many say the push to ban abortion could gain traction and fly under the radar of presidential politics.

Under Baja’s amendment, punishments for women who have an abortion could include sentences of up to three years, as well as fines totaling $5,000, an amount equal to two years salary for the average woman in Mexico.

According to progressive-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, which currently controls the capital, there are over 100 cases now pending across the country involving women being tried for abortions.

“This decision makes no sense and only harms one of the most vulnerable segments of the population,’’ Ana Laura Magolini, a legal scholar and researcher from Madrid Autonomous University, said on national television after the decision was announced.

Speaking to the press, Magolini noted aside from requiring doctors to report women who request an abortion – even if the woman’s life is in danger — the ruling endangers single mothers, who will be forced to raise a family in an economic climate that will condemn them to decades of poverty and struggle.

Francisco Sanchez Corona, a congressman from the state of Baja California and an opponent of the amendment, described the ruling as “an affront to women’s human rights.”

Conservatives, meanwhile, cheered the ruling.

Jose Isidro Romero, Archbishop of Baja California declared victory after Thursday’s ruling, crediting a call from Pope Benedict to an unnamed Mexican official as a partial factor in the outcome.

Members of the Supreme Court were quick to deny any outside pressure, though rumors are circulating that President Calderon, head of the ruling National Action Party, influenced the court’s thinking on the matter.

Calderon, an open conservative, has previously tiptoed around the issue of legalizing abortion, only going so far as to say that he is pro-life. While remaining largely out of the limelight in this debate, political analysts speculate about the possibility that he played a behind-the-scenes role in Magistrate Ramos’ about face.

As for Mexico’s 40 million women, aside from hard-core activists there’s been a muted reaction on the street. Whether or not this decision will drive more women to the polling booth come election time remains a key question.