Mexico’s supreme court rules criminal penalties for abortion unconstitutional

Court orders Coahuila to remove sanctions for abortion from criminal code, clearing a path to decriminalisation across Mexico

Mexico’s supreme court has struck down a state abortion law, ruling that criminal penalties for terminating pregnancies are unconstitutional, in a decision which advocates say provides a path to decriminalisation across the country.

In a unanimous 10-0 ruling, the top court ordered the northern state of Coahuila to remove sanctions for abortion from its criminal code – with several justices arguing the prohibitions on voluntarily interrupting a pregnancy violated women’s rights to control their own bodies.

“It is not about the right to abortion,” said justice Luis María Aguilar, who wrote the court’s opinion for overturning the Coahuila law. “It’s rather the right to decide of women and persons able to gestate to make decisions.”

The ruling contrasts sharply with recent actions in the United States to restrict abortion access – most notably across the border from Coahuila in Texas, where legislation – upheld by the US supreme court – bans abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy and allows citizens to pursue legal actions against women seeking a termination.

But the decision continues a trend in Latin America towards decriminalization as women waving green handkerchiefs have thronged the streets across the continent to demand action on abortion access and gender violence.

Mexico follows Argentina, where lawmakers voted in December to decriminalise abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Tuesday’s ruling continues a trend from Mexico’s supreme court to rule in favour of petitions brought by women seeking abortions for health reasons or due to sexual assault.

It also turns back a spate of state-level attempts over the past dozen years to restrict abortion through constitutional amendments.

Map of Coahuila, south of the Texas border

“This is the first time the court is getting to the heart of the matter” on abortion restrictions, said Rebeca Ramos, director of GIRE, a reproductive rights organisation.

“In this specific case, it’s whether criminalisation, considering elective abortion at the early stages of pregnancy to be a crime, is constitutional,” she added. “What’s being resolved is that it’s not constitutional because it affects a series of human rights.”

So far, only four Mexican states have decriminalised abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – with three state removing restrictions over the past two years.

Mexico City decriminalised abortion in 2007 and the supreme court upheld that law as constitutional.

But Ramos said the court did so on the grounds that states were allowed to set their own health policies. More than half of Mexico’s 32 states subsequently approved constitutional amendments declaring life to begin at conception.

Those amendments have not stopped the supreme court from ruling in favour of increased access to abortion, however, and the court is expected to rule later this week on the constitutionality of an amendment approved in the state of Sinaloa.

“According to a secular state, the defence and autonomy of privacy of women must be unconditional, according to her life plan, and presume that her decision is rational, deliberate and autonomous,” justice Norma Piña Hernández said in her arguments.

In his argument, Arturo Zaldívar, president of the court, wrote: “The criminalisation of abortion punishes the poorest women, the most marginalised, the forgotten and most discriminated against, in the country. It’s a crime that in its nature punishes poverty.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declined comment when asked at his Tuesday press conference on the pending court decision. The president has showed little interest in the abortion issue, even though his ruling Morena party identifies as left-leaning.

“It’s not a secret that [López Obrador] personally opposes the rights of women to decide and that he sees the feminist movement with suspicion,” said Barbara González, a political analyst in Monterrey.

But with the decision, González said, the court would be able to “show independence” in the face of accusations it was being unduly pressured by López Obrador on other matters.

Mexico’s Catholic church voiced dismay with the ruling, while others expressed anger over the justices’ decision to refer to “persons able to gestate” in their arguments.

Bishops have previously lobbied state governors to approve prohibitions on abortion, said Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez, a sociologist who studies the Mexican Catholic church, “and in exchange they stayed silent on issues such as corruption and violence”.

Contributor

David Agren in Mexico City

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Mexico’s activists brace for landmark supreme court abortion ruling
The ruling could set a precedent; in states that have restrictive regulations, injunctions could be granted to allow the procedure

David Agren in Mexico City

29, Jul, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Mexican woman jailed for miscarriage released after conviction is overturned
Dafne McPherson was accused of murdering her newborn and found guilty in July 2016, but an appeals court says evidence was flimsy

David Agren in Mexico City

25, Jan, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Texas anti-abortion law shows ‘terrifying’ fragility of women’s rights, say activists
Campaigners fear ban emboldens anti-choice governments as more aggressive opposition, better organised and funded, spreads from US

Lizzy Davies

18, Sep, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
'We have made history': Mexico's Oaxaca state decriminalises abortion
Lawmakers voted to scrap restrictions on abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in a win for reproductive rights advocates

David Agren

26, Sep, 2019 @8:52 PM

Article image
Poland rules abortion due to foetal defects unconstitutional
Constitutional court’s ruling could pave way for governing PiS party to move ahead with legislative ban

Staff and agencies in Warsaw

22, Oct, 2020 @4:31 PM

Abortion rights in Mexico City face legal fight

Catholic Church and anti-abortion activists argue measure allows for taking of life that violates Mexico's constitution

McClatchy newspapers

21, Aug, 2008 @4:21 PM

Article image
Mexican rape victim, 13, denied access to abortion
Girl in Sonora barred from terminating pregnancy after judge downgrades crime from rape to ‘sexual coercion’

Nina Lakhani in Mexico City

01, Aug, 2016 @10:55 PM

Article image
'It destroyed the girl she was': the toll of pregnancy on Paraguay's children
Rampant child abuse, a culture that sexualizes young girls and draconian abortion laws have contributed to a child pregnancy rate that is among Latin America’s highest

Laurence Blair and Santi Carneri in Asunción

19, Jul, 2018 @7:30 AM

Article image
Brazil: outcry as religious extremists harass child seeking abortion
Ten-year-old girl was forced to fly more than 900 miles to north-eastern city of Recife for the procedure after being raped

Tom Phillips and Caio Barretto Briso in Rio de Janeiro

17, Aug, 2020 @8:27 PM

Article image
Argentina legalises abortion in landmark moment for women's rights
Country becomes only the third in South America to permit elective abortions

Tom Phillips , Latin America correspondent, and Amy Booth and Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires

30, Dec, 2020 @10:35 AM