The US Supreme Court took away abortion rights. Mexico’s high court just did the opposite.

A ruling this week by Mexico’s Supreme Court to decriminalize abortion continues a broadening push in recent years to expand abortion access in Latin America, placing the region more in line with global reproductive-rights trends than the United States, where Roe v. Wade was struck down last year.

Counter-intuitively, the Mexican court’s decision toward opening up abortion access comes in a country with lower support for abortion rights than in the United States, where abortion access has been widely restricted in recent months.

“Mexico is a secular country but has a Catholic majority, and the Church wields tremendous popular and political power,” said Elyse Ona Singer, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

What happened in Mexico this week?

Mexico’s highest court on Wednesday tossed out federal criminal penalties for abortion in a sweeping national decision hailed by reproductive rights groups. The ruling means individuals nationwide will be able to access abortion care at federal health facilities, even in states with laws banning the procedure.

“We are celebrating,” said Carmen Cecilia Martinez of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global human rights organization. “It’s a victory for the movement and for all women, and we hope it impacts reproductive policies across the region.”

About 70% of Mexico’s population is subscribed to the federal health system, Martinez said, “so that means we will see a massive and collective impact after this decision.”

A woman holds a banner reading

In its ruling, the Mexican court affirmed an earlier decision that said laws criminalizing abortion were unconstitutional, ordering Mexico’s congressional chambers to remove penalties for abortion from the country’s penal codes before the end of its current session.

“The criminalization of abortion constitutes an act of violence and discrimination based on gender, since it perpetuates the stereotype that women and pregnant persons can only freely exercise their sexuality to procreate,” the court said in its statement.

Martinez, the center’s associate director for legal strategies for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the court’s position echoes the World Health Organization’s guidelines on reproductive rights.

“If you look worldwide, you can see a trend toward fulfilling international recommendations about how a legal framework around abortion should be,” she said.

How are nations handling reproductive rights globally?

More than 60 countries have liberalized abortion laws in the last 30 years, according to the center, including Spain, Thailand, South Africa and South Korea. Meanwhile, the United States – where the U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned Roe v. Wade – is among just four nations that have restricted abortion rights in that span, including Poland, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Abortion-rights activists in Bogota, Colombia, celebrate in February 2022 after the Constitutional Court approved the decriminalization of abortion, lifting limitations on the procedure until the 24th week of pregnancy. Colombia's decriminalization of abortion is part of a broader trend called

Martinez called the Mexico ruling “a landmark decision” that builds on measures in recent years to expand abortion access in Argentina, Colombia and other Latin American countries, a movement dubbed “The Green Wave” because of the green bandanas wielded by activists protesting for reproductive rights.

“With this victory, the Green Wave continues to grow and expand, achieving greater protections for women in Latin America,” Martinez said.

Attitudes changing among Mexico’s Catholic majority

The Latin American movement stands in sharp contrast to increasing restrictions on abortion in parts of the United States. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling providing the right to abortion nationwide, and most states led by conservative lawmakers and governors have since adopted bans or tightened restrictions on the procedure.

“What happened in the USA is a big lesson for all, that there is a need to keep promoting reproductive health rights for women,” said Fatima Juarez, a professor at the Center for Demographic, Urban and Environmental Studies at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City.

In Mexico, prior to the high court’s ruling, 20 of the country’s 32 states had laws criminalizing abortion. Nearly 80% of Mexicans are Catholic, and an August 2021 national survey conducted by Mexican newspaper El Financiero found that 45% of respondents favored legalized abortion, compared to 53% who objected.

That’s in contrast to the U.S., where a Pew Research Center report published in July 2022 found the majority of Americans disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, with 62% saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Demonstrators hold signs during the Women's March in Washington, Saturday, June 24, 2023. Abortion rights and anti-abortion activists held rallies Saturday in Washington and across the country to call attention to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling on June 24, 2022, which upended the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Singer, author of “Lawful Sins: Abortion Rights and Reproductive Governance in Mexico,” said Americans’ overall support for reproductive rights stems from the United States’ longer history of legal abortion as compared to Mexico, where most gains have taken place over the last two decades.

At the same time, she said, Catholic edicts often diverge from how people carry out their daily lives, and many Mexicans have found their faith shaken by sexual abuse scandals involving clergy, leading them to question teachings on abortion.

As Singer researched her book and interviewed women who’d sought legal abortions despite being Catholic, she found some grappled with guilt and moral misgivings but were also critical of the hypocrisy they saw in their spiritual leaders.

“All of this is to say that public opinion in Mexico has been increasingly moving toward support,” Singer said.

Last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, however, defied even higher levels of support in the United States.

“The heavily right-wing composition of the U.S. Supreme Court and the justices appointed by Donald Trump, that is my sense of the difference here,” Singer said.

Echoes of America’s 1970s abortion-rights movement

Martinez, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the Mexican court’s decision marked the culmination of decades of activism and national legal efforts led by Mexico’s Information Group on Reproductive Choice, a feminist organization known as GIRE.

“It was strategic litigation that started at the lowest levels of justice,” she said.

Women try to ignite the fence covering the Mexico City's National Palace during a demonstration demanding the decriminalization of abortion on the Global Day of Action for Legal and Safe Abortion in September 2022.

Mexico criminalized abortion in 1931, and the procedure remained illegal for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until around 2000 that the country started to see a slow, incremental loosening of restrictions.

In 2007, Mexico City decriminalized abortion in a historic vote, offering abortion care through the first trimester via its Ministry of Health.

Juarez, whose work at El Colegio de Mexico focuses on reproductive health in less developed countries, said the years since have seen a period of Mexican abortion-rights activism echoing the U.S. movement of the 1970s.

Even as the procedure remained illegal throughout most of the country, an estimated 1 million abortions nonetheless took place annually through 2019, Juarez said – many under unsafe conditions.

States like Oaxaca, Veracruz and Baja California began to decriminalize abortion, but the biggest step took place in 2021, when the Mexican Supreme Court ordered the state of Coahuila to remove criminal penalties for abortion from its criminal code, declaring criminalization of abortion unconstitutional.

“That was kind of the preamble to this,” Singer said.

A pro-life activist holds a rosary outside Mexico's Supreme Court during a hearing over a controversial abortion case in Mexico City in June 2016. Abortion was illegal in Mexico for most of the 20th century, but reproductive rights advocates have been making incremental steps in the last two decades toward winning abortion access in the heavily Catholic country.

That ruling set off a state-by-state process, led by GIRE, to decriminalize abortion. Last week, the central state of Aguascalientes became the 12th state to drop criminal penalties.

Activists will have to continue their state-by-state legalization efforts, though Wednesday’s decision should make that easier, and state legislatures can also erase abortion penalties on their own.

While many in Mexico praised the decision, others decried it. Irma Barrientos, director of the Civil Association for the Rights of the Conceived, said her group would continue to fight against expanded abortion access.

“We’re not going to stop,” Barrientos said. “Let’s remember what happened in the United States…. We’re not going to stop until Mexico guarantees the right to life from the moment of conception.”

For now, abortion access in Mexico will remain limited for some

Despite the ruling, Singer doesn’t expect abortion care to be immediately accessible across Mexico, especially for residents in areas of the country who might face geographic or ideological barriers.

“Medical professionals will no doubt invoke their right to conscientious objection,” she said. “There’s still a stigma around abortion, so especially in more remote and conservative parts of the country we will see a gap between the legal ruling and actual accessibility of services on the ground.”

Abortion rights supporters embrace outside Mexico's Supreme Court during a 2016 hearing related to a controversial abortion case in Mexico City. Reproductive rights activists in Mexico have earned incremental victories over the last two decades, culminating in a Sept. 6, 2023, decision by Mexico's Supreme Court ordering the decriminalization of abortion at the federal level.

Nevertheless, she suspects American women seeking abortions will increasingly cross the border for services as a result.

Fernanda Díaz de León, sub-director and legal expert for women’s rights group IPAS, said removing the federal ban eliminates an excuse used by care providers to deny abortions in states where the procedure is no longer a crime. But she also worried that women, particularly in more conservative areas, may still be denied abortions.

While the ruling was “a very important step,” she said, “we need to wait to see how this is going to be applied and how far it reaches.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

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