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In Mexico, Powerful Forces Drive a Furious Debate Over Abortion
Catholic Church Fights Legislation

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 15, 2007

MEXICO CITY -- The young woman with the cascading curls walked into a dumpy house with no sign out front on the day she decided to get an abortion.

Inside, she says, she paid $200 for eight syringes filled with a milky liquid and a set of instructions. She spent the night in a Mexico City hotel room, giving herself injections that made her bleed and cry out in agony.

The next day, weak and depressed, the woman was persuaded by her sister to see a doctor, who determined that she had undergone an incomplete abortion, the woman said during an interview on condition of anonymity. He conducted an emergency procedure to complete the abortion and stave off infection.

"What have I done?" she recalled thinking. "I risked my life."

The woman and tens of thousands like her who undergo illegal abortions in Mexico each year are at the nexus of a furious cultural debate gripping this nation, which allows abortion only in limited cases, including rape and when the mother's life is in danger. Abortion opponents cite cases such as hers as evidence that abortion should be further curtailed; abortion rights advocates argue that the procedure should be decriminalized so that women have access to safe abortions.

The debate has been ignited by two proposals to expand access to abortions in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, considered a regional trendsetter on social issues. Mexico City's legislature is widely expected to approve a law on April 24 that would decriminalize abortion and allow the procedure during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. A similar proposal has been filed in the Mexican Congress.

The issue has set off a clash between powerful forces. On one side are feminists and the left-leaning politicians who have strengthened their control of Mexico City's government. On the other side is the Catholic Church, which failed to stop legalization of gay civil unions in Mexico City and the northern state of Coahuila in recent months.

"The Catholic Church has lost a lot of influence as Mexicans have become more aware of their rights as citizens and not just their rights as baptized Catholics," said Mario Canseco, who grew up in Mexico City and is global studies director at Angus Reid Global Monitor, a research group that tracks public opinion. "The church, especially the rural priests, once dominated when it came to social decisions, but that's not the case anymore."

The topic of abortion has been the focus of frequent Sunday sermons and media attention in Mexico City for weeks. Church leaders have threatened to excommunicate Catholic lawmakers who vote to expand access to abortion. A leading abortion opponent, Jorge Serrano Limón, has called Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who supports the abortion proposal, "a fascist." On Tuesday, feminists struck back, taunting Serrano Limón at a public appearance by slipping out of their bras and waving them at him.

A number of abortion fights are playing out across Latin America, where Cuba and Guyana are the only countries that allow wide access to the procedure. Nicaragua's Supreme Court recently agreed to hear an appeal of an abortion ban passed last year. The first legal abortion in Colombia was performed in August.

Meanwhile, suggestions of expanding access to abortion have been met unfavorably in Brazil, the only country with more Catholics than Mexico. A March poll showed that just 10 percent of Brazilians want the procedure decriminalized.

Much as in the United States in the 1960s, in Mexico it is the state legislatures that have become abortion flash points. Abortion rights advocates scored their biggest victory in 2000 in the state of Yucatan, northwest of Cancun. Yucatan now allows abortions for women who already have three children and can prove that they cannot afford another child. All Mexican states permit abortions for rape victims, though a study by Human Rights Watch found that local officials frequently find ways to deny the procedures.

The proposed law in Mexico City, which is a federal district and functions much like a state, is potentially broader than the law in Yucatan. The measure would permit abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy if having a child would be "incompatible" with a woman's "life project," a standard that could allow abortions for pregnant women who don't want to interrupt school or work. It is backed by the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, which holds a large majority in the city legislature.

The national legislation, also sponsored by the PRD, faces a more difficult challenge because the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, staunchly opposes abortion. President Felipe Calderón said in an interview last month that he considers the current law "adequate" and would oppose changes.

In this nation, the church has mounted an aggressive campaign against the abortion proposals. Led by the church hierarchy, thousands of demonstrators waved banners earlier this month decrying "a culture of death" while marching to Mexico City's Basilica de Guadalupe, one of the Catholic world's holiest shrines. The Vatican also dispatched its top antiabortion campaigner, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, to Mexico City. Mexico's highest-ranking Catholic, Cardinal Norberto Rivera, has repeatedly criticized the abortion proposals during sermons and described abortion as "an abominable crime."

Mexico outlawed abortion in 1931. But it created an exception, allowing abortions for rape victims. The law did not set a cutoff date for the procedure, meaning those women can have abortions at any time, even eight months into a pregnancy. Sen. Pablo Gómez, sponsor of the national abortion proposal, likes to point out that Mexico for decades had a less restrictive abortion law than the state of North Carolina, which didn't legalize abortion until the 1960s.

There are few abortion prosecutions in Mexico, where a university study estimated there are 1 million abortions a year. The rich either go to the United States for abortions or to private clinics in Mexico, where their doctors are the sole judges of whether the procedure fits the parameters of the law. The poor, who can seldom get abortions at public hospitals, go to what critics refer to as back-alley "charlatans," who openly advertise their services.

"Abortion has been privatized in Mexico," Gómez said in an interview. "It's a bad joke."

Abortion rights activists say as many as 3,000 deaths in Mexico each year are due to botched abortions, making it the fifth-leading cause of death among women. As many as 10,000 women a year are hospitalized because of complications from abortions, activists say.

Both sides are flooding radio and television with advertising. The Mexico City legislature, whose PRD majority says the Catholic Church is violating Mexican law by getting involved in the political debate, is placing 30,000 triptychs around the city to explain the proposed law. In an interview, Serrano Limón said his organization, Pro-Life, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising, including posters of Mayor Ebrard with aborted fetuses.

Antiabortion activists have enlisted one of Mexico's most famous comedians, Roberto Gómez Bolaños, better known as Chespirito of the television show "El Chapulin Colorado" -- or "The Red Grasshopper." He appears in frequent television ads, saying his mother refused doctors' advice to undergo an abortion. Abortion rights advocates countered with advertisements starring Paulina Ramírez Jacinta, a rape victim whose case became an international symbol in 2000. Despite a law allowing abortions for rape victims in the city of Mexicali, local officials refused to permit one and she was forced to have the baby.

"How nice that Chespirito's mother was allowed to decide," Ramírez Jacinta, now 21, says into the camera. "My family and I also would have liked to be able to decide."

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