Growing up in the 1990s in a Catholic household outside of Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, I learned as a young girl that abortion was out of the question. When I reached my adolescent years, the only representation I had ever seen of abortion in pop culture was in the film “The Crime of Padre Amaro.” In the movie, the priest impregnates a young woman, then takes her to an unsanitary and illegal clinic. The abortion goes wrong; she dies. The message landed: I was sure that having an abortion would lead to death.
This month Mexico got a new message. On Sept. 7 the justices of the Mexican Supreme Court unanimously ruled that it is unconstitutional to criminalize abortion. The court then stated, unequivocally, that our Constitution guarantees the right to choose. No Mexican woman or person with the ability to become pregnant should be prosecuted for exercising her rights.
Even as feminists across the country celebrate this decision, we also must recognize where credit is due. For more than 29 years, feminists have organized themselves in nonprofit groups such as GIRE (where I work), Fondo María and Balance. Women have taken to the streets again and again across Latin America demanding that our governments guarantee our rights.
Grass-roots movements have transformed the narrative and have made more and more Mexicans see that we need sexual education to discover our bodies, contraceptives to enjoy our sexuality and legal abortion to own our own decisions. (The motto in Spanish is “Educación sexual para descubrir, anticonceptivos para disfrutar, aborto legal para decidir.”) The feminist movement has insisted for years that abortion involves and affects all women, no matter their social status.
When I left my home state, Puebla, in 2010 to attend law school in Mexico City, I learned that first-trimester abortions were made legal in the capital of our country in 2007. From my feminist law professors, my fellow students and I learned, often for the first time, about the right to choose, a right our Constitution grants.
After Mexico City opened the door to legalization, states slowly followed. First came Oaxaca in 2019, and this year Hidalgo and Veracruz joined what feminists call the Marea Verde, or the Green Tide. But Mexico is a federation, made up of states. That means your rights depend on where you are standing, a legal system very similar to that of the United States.
This month the Mexican Supreme Court offered hope to all women and girls in our country. The justices said what has long been intuitive to feminist activists: that someone who is not yet born does not have the same protection as someone who already is alive.
The court stated that women and nonbinary people must not be prosecuted criminally for having an abortion. However, the decision does not translate into an immediate decriminalization of abortion in all states, since abortion is still a crime on the books in 28 local criminal codes. The decision means that no judge may send to prison or sanction women or nonbinary persons who exercise their right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. In other words, technically, a woman could still be taken before a judge and exposed before the community, though she would not see jail time.
We are early yet in the story of our rights in Mexico. Not being sent to jail does not mean abortion is accessible for everyone. Women living outside of Mexico City, Oaxaca, Veracruz or Hidalgo — the areas where abortion rights have progressed the farthest — still have to travel to have an abortion. That restriction disproportionately affects those who are economically vulnerable. And in Mexico, that is an enormous restriction. In my country, we say poverty has a female face; out of 65.5 million women, 50 million are in poverty or at risk of economic or social hardship.
Feminist activists should continue to demand that their local representatives work to reform the criminal codes to eliminate the articles that consider voluntary abortion a crime. This is not only legally relevant: It is imperative in order to start eradicating the social stigma that still surrounds those who decide to have an abortion.
In Mexico, abortion has long been cast in the context of shame — just as I first learned from Padre Amaro. This is finally starting to change: Protests by those who oppose abortion were held outside the doors of the Supreme Court. But the prayer and protest did not seem to have any effect on the arguments of the justices.
Now it is essential that the Mexican media and the pop culture portray abortion as what it is: a right and a choice. I write this thinking of all the girls who, like me, grew up equating abortion with death or jail. Thanks to the Mexican justices, this idea may start to disappear. We still have to continue fighting to guarantee that abortion is a safe, legal, accessible and free medical procedure.
In Chile, the feminist performance art collective Las Tesis created a feminist anthem denouncing violence against women that has become a theme song in the fight to legalize abortion. The chant quickly spread through Latin America. In the song, “Un violador en tu camino” (“A Rapist in Your Path”), Las Tesis berated those who judge us for being born women. The group first performed this anthem in Santiago in 2019 and it was soon sung around the world, including by hundreds of thousands in Mexico City. Days before the Supreme Court made its ruling, Mexican women across the country quoted this song on Twitter.
The Mexican Supreme Court and our justices have now sent a signal to the entire Latin American region, where women continue to face obstacles to have a safe abortion. From Argentina to Mexico, the green tide continues the fight for our rights.
Melissa Ayala is a lawyer specializing in constitutional law and feminist legal theory. She is the litigation coordinator of GIRE, a feminist organization dedicated to abortion rights and reproductive freedom based in Mexico City.
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