Mexico's Anti-Abortion Backlash
According to Diego Valadés, a legal scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, state constitutional amendments nearly always take at least a couple of months to be approved. And yet when it came to fetal rights, lawmakers in most states where the ley anti-aborto passed managed to muscle it through in a matter of days. “There has never been anything like it; it was an almost synchronized series of events,” said Valadés. But like any work hastily composed, the ley was imperfect and seemed to place the IUD and in-vitro fertilization—not to mention exceptions to the abortion restrictions that were still on the books in many states—into a legal gray zone. “They say we protect life since conception—except for these causes that we already had,” said Fatima Juarez, a demographics expert at the Colegio de Mexico, in Mexico City. “How can you reconcile ‘We protect since conception’ and ‘You can [terminate a pregnancy] for economic reasons’? It’s illogical.” Now many fear that women who terminate a pregnancy for any reason can be prosecuted for infanticide.
Instead, state prosecutors dusted off the old abortion penal codes—most of which call for prison terms or fines—and opened investigations: ten in Veracruz, thirty in Puebla and thirty-one in Hidalgo. In 2009 in the southern state of Quintana Roo, a Mayan woman was wrongfully jailed for what turned out to be a spontaneous miscarriage, and in 2010 an 11-year-old girl who was raped and impregnated by her stepfather was denied an abortion because she was four months pregnant—one month past the allowable twelve weeks. The cases became a flashpoint in the national debate over abortion and the fairness of the ley, and when I called Elsa Conde again this past August, she described what she said was a mini-backlash to the backlash: four more states had strengthened access to abortion for rape victims. But Conde was quick to add that pro-choice advocates remain in a “position of defense.” “Basically,” she said, “we’re just trying to make sure no other states adopt the ley anti-aborto.”
In May 2009 the ley was approved with a two-thirds majority in Guanajuato. Just nine years earlier, the state congress had voted to eliminate the exemption for rape victims, but the governor was forced to veto it after a public outcry. In 2009 public school teachers staged a bonfire of middle school biology textbooks, and subsequent editions had some noteworthy changes in the chapter on sex: life now begins at the “moment of conception,” and virginity is “a treasure.”
But if one episode cemented Guanajuato’s conservative status, it came in the summer of 2010, when Centro Las Libres, a women’s health group in Guanajuato City, broke the news that seven women were in prison on a charge that amounted to infanticide—homicidio con razón de parentesco, or homicide of a family member—with a maximum penalty of twenty-nine years. Some had already spent more than six years in prison, so their sentences said more about the cruelty of the Mexican criminal justice system than the new ley anti-aborto. But the women became symbols of the dangerous consequences of criminalizing abortion and a focal point for the left in organizing against the ley. All the women said the fetuses they were accused of murdering were stillborn or miscarried. Yolanda Martínez, who says she didn’t even know she was pregnant, was alleged to have left a nearly full-term fetus to die in an outhouse. But police had first arrested her on suspicion of abandoning another infant—not hers, it turned out—found that day in a different part of town. Once she was in custody, her house was searched, and officers emerged with blankets that they claimed had held her dead newborn. Susana Dueñas says three experts declared the baby she was accused of killing a stillbirth, but the judge sided with a fourth opinion, of a doctor on the prosecutor’s payroll. After a media outcry, the state reduced the penalty for the type of homicide they had been charged under—from twenty-nine to eight years. In September 2010 all seven women were released for time served.
* * *
Las Libres is not the only women’s rights group in Guanajuato, but it is the most vocal. It was the unrelenting campaigning of Las Libres that was crucial in getting the seven women released, and when the New York Times ran a story about it, the group’s director, Veronica Cruz, appeared in the accompanying photo, protectively embracing one of the newly released women.
The first time I met Cruz was on an overcast morning in the summer of 2009. Forty years old, with a round face and light brown hair, she has the energy of a longtime activist. She is earnest but cynical. Inside the Las Libres headquarters on the outskirts of Guanajuato City, she introduced me to a petite woman dressed in white named Rosario. She was 20 and had recently completed a nine-month probation sentence. Her story was shocking to me at the time. She had taken abortion pills, fallen ill with nausea, gone to the hospital and been reported to the police. She said the staff had mistreated her, calling her names, completing the abortion surgically without anesthesia (which is standard) and allowing medical students into the room to take pictures with their cellphones. She paused and started to cry. About a month after the surgery, she said, she was lured out of her house in her slippers by men in an unmarked van and taken to jail in handcuffs. Her family borrowed the money to pay the $800 bond.
But it turns out that going to the hospital is a common way for Mexican women to get caught. According to the US-based Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health and rights organization, the abortion-related hospitalization rate in Mexico is high—17 percent in 2006 (it is 0.3 percent in the United States). This is because so many abortions are clandestine, exposing women to physical as well as legal risks.
This past June I went back to Guanajuato to see Cruz. I found her curled up in a chair, gossiping with her sister, who helps run the office, and another volunteer. Cruz said that a couple of women had recently been arrested but that she wasn’t following their cases. “Honestly, it’s just too many to keep up with,” she said with a shrug. Daniela Castro’s was one of the last like it that Las Libres had pursued, so she picked up the phone to call her.
Daniela agreed to meet me at a cafe across from a large salmon-hued cathedral in the plaza of a nearby town. She looked carefree and summery in a floral A-line skirt and a fitted white T-shirt. But it was just a year before that Daniela woke up every morning worried that she was going to prison, and her life seemed to be falling apart. “My friends stopped talking to me, and they even wrote messages on my Facebook,” she said. Carlos quit the local university for a cheaper school two hours away so they could afford a private attorney, but he proved as useless as the public defender. For a while, they had no idea what to do. “We were thinking about running away to the United States—like wetbacks,” Daniela said, shaking her head. Las Libres heard about the case and connected Daniela with a group of pro bono lawyers from Mexico City who complained to the state Human Rights Commission. They argued that Daniela’s hospital interview was inadmissible because she hadn’t had a legal representative present. That small oversight seemed to be all that was needed: a few weeks later, Daniela’s case was closed for lack of evidence.
After we talked, Carlos and Daniela offered me a ride to the bus station. Carlos had been quiet most of the afternoon, but he suddenly chimed in as he was driving. “At the time there were all these kidnappings going on, all these people on the street kidnapping and murdering,” he said. “And yet we were the ones they had down at the prosecutor’s office.” Then he fell silent again, edging the truck around a corner.