Mexico City's Legislature Votes to Legalize Abortion

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

MEXICO CITY, April 24 -- After months of furious debate and threats of excommunication by the Catholic Church, Mexico City's legislative assembly on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to legalize abortion for the first time in the capital's history.

Riot police held back thousands of protesters, some hoisting coffins and others waving plastic fetuses, as lawmakers wrangled over a measure that would allow abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and abolish a seven-decade-old law that levied criminal penalties against women who have abortions.

The bill, which was approved 46 to 19 and which Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has promised to sign into law, would make Mexico City the largest city in Latin America to legalize abortion and could give momentum to efforts to legalize the procedure nationwide in this predominantly Catholic country. Currently, abortion is allowed in limited cases, including rape and when the mother's life is in danger.

Abortion opponents vowed to appeal the law to the Mexican Supreme Court.

Inside the old stone legislative building in downtown Mexico City, some lawmakers opposed to the bill slipped into black T-shirts that read "Yes to Life" and placed placards next to their gold-filigreed chairs that said "Adoption is another option." Backers of the bill propped signs on their desks that read "Legal abortion so women don't die."

Antiabortion lobbyists poured into the white-columned chambers to apply last-minute pressure, even though the bill was expected to sail through with the backing of a coalition led by the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, which has a large majority.

At the entrance to the chambers, an antiabortion activist cut off Assemblyman Jorge Schiaffino, a vocal backer of legalizing abortion.

"What about all those people in the streets?" Beatriz Rodríguez demanded.

"We don't vote in the streets, we vote in here," Schiaffino responded before sliding away.

Activists such as Rodríguez fear the vote in Mexico City, a federal district that functions much like a state, will create a domino effect, leading to similar laws elsewhere in Mexico. Last year, after the assembly passed the country's first gay civil unions law, the northern state of Coahuila passed its own civil union law, and a raft of similar proposals are now working their way through other state legislatures.

Outside the legislative building Tuesday, abortion opponents lamented what they had dubbed "Black Tuesday." Carlos Valencia, the bass player in a reggae band that entertained the demonstrators, said he worried about the effect of the laws.

"My wife had a spontaneous abortion and it caused us so much emotional pain," Valencia said. "I don't want others to have to go through the same."

Lawmakers prepared to vote amid increasing pressure from the Catholic Church and leading figures in President Felipe Calderón's National Action Party, or PAN, which opposes broadening access to abortion. First lady Margarita Zavala, who has kept a low profile since her husband took office in December, strongly denounced the measure in a speech on the eve of the vote.

"It's possible to see heart, lungs and head and arms after a boy or girl has been in the mother's womb for 12 weeks," Zavala, a mother of three, told a political gathering.

The Vatican issued a statement that was widely distributed in Mexico over the weekend describing abortion as "terrorism with a human face." Felipe Aguirre Franco, archbishop of Acapulco, said recently that it is a sin not to protest the procedure.

In the assembly, Schiaffino, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, argued with Rodríguez over statistics, a common point of dispute in an intense propaganda war. Schiaffino asserted that more than 8,000 women die each year because of dangerous, illegal abortions.

"That's ridiculous, it's less than 200," replied Rodríguez.

The Mexican press was engaged in a similar battle. A headline on the front page of Reforma, a right-leaning newspaper, said: "Abortion is a crime, but it is seldom punished." Left-leaning El Universal ran a major piece saying 524 women have been charged with having illegal abortions in the past six years. On its front page was a big picture: one of those women behind bars.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company