Mexico decriminalizes abortion, extending Latin American trend of widening access

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s Supreme Court threw out all federal criminal penalties for abortion Wednesday, ruling that national laws prohibiting the procedure are unconstitutional and violate women’s rights in a sweeping decision that extended Latin American’s trend of widening abortion access.

The high court ordered that abortion be removed from the federal penal code, and a reproduction rights group said the decision would require the federal public health service and all federal health institutions to offer abortion to anyone who requests it.

“No woman or pregnant person, nor any health worker, will be able to be punished for abortion,” the Information Group for Chosen Reproduction, known by its Spanish initials GIRE, said in a statement.

Celebration soon spilled out on social media.

“Today is a day of victory and justice for Mexican women!” Mexico’s National Institute for Women wrote in a message on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. The government organization noted it was a “big step” towards gender equality.

The court said on X that “the legal system that criminalized abortion” in Mexican federal law was unconstitutional because it “violates the human rights of women and people with the ability to gestate.”

The decision came two years after the court ruled that abortion was not a crime in one northern state. That ruling set off a slow state-by-state process of decriminalizing it.

Last week, the central state of Aguascalientes became the 12th state to drop criminal penalties. Judges in states that still criminalize abortion will have to take account of the top court’s ruling.

Abortion-rights activists will have to continue seeking legalization state by state, though Wednesday’s decision should make that easier. State legislatures can also act on their own to erase abortion penalties.

Wednesday’s ruling builds on previous wins for abortion rights

Across Latin America, countries have made moves to lift abortion restrictions in recent years, a trend often referred to as a “green wave,” in reference to the green bandanas carried by women protesting for abortion rights in the region.

The changes in Latin America stand in sharp contrast to increasing restrictions on abortion in parts of the United States. Some American women were already seeking help from Mexican abortion rights activists to obtain pills used to end pregnancies.

Mexico City was the first Mexican jurisdiction to decriminalize abortion 15 years ago.

After decades of work by activists across the region, the trend picked up speed in Argentina, which in 2020 legalized the procedure. In 2022, Colombia, a highly conservative country, did the same.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that provided a right to abortion nationwide. Since then, most states led by conservative lawmakers and governors have adopted bans or tighter restrictions.

The fact that the U.S. government is politically divided makes a nationwide ban or legalization unlikely, at least in the short term.

Currently, abortion is banned throughout pregnancy — with limited exceptions — in 15 states. Bans in two more states forbid abortion after cardiac activity can be detected, generally around six weeks into pregnancy and often before women know they are pregnant. Judges have put enforcement of restrictions on hold in at least four additional states.

Meanwhile, states with liberal governments have taken steps to try to protect abortion access.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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