The shadows of pro-choice activists are cast on the pavement during a protest in Mexico City September 28, 2011. REUTERS/Bernardo Montoya
This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Daniela Castro, a 21-year-old administrator for a Mexican children’s charity, got to the hospital just before dark. It was a warm, cloudless July night in 2010, and Daniela grabbed the arm of her boyfriend of three years, a handsome architecture student named Carlos Bautista. The two walked through the entrance confidently. If anything, they looked more like a pair of teen models than a couple of criminals. But Daniela was at the hospital that night because she had taken abortion pills that made her sick. Abortion is banned throughout Mexico, and authorities in her native Guanajuato, a mid-sized state in the center of Mexico with an ultraconservative reputation, like to enforce the law.
The state has opened at least 130 investigations into illegal abortions over the past decade, according to research by women’s rights groups, and fourteen people, including three men, have been criminally convicted. Given Mexico’s 2 percent national conviction rate during its most violent period since the revolution, that’s a successful ratio.
But Daniela did not have such numbers in her head when she told the attending physician her story. A few days earlier, she and Carlos had turned to Carlos’s mother for help. Of their parents, Norma Angelica Rodriguez, 41, was the most likely to be sympathetic. She had been a young mother herself, and she knew of a pharmacy in town that would sell Misoprostol—an over-the-counter ulcer drug that women take to induce labor—without asking a lot of questions. Rodriguez knew this because, like the estimated 875,000 Mexican women who have abortions every year, she had once needed the drug herself.
The doctor listened to Daniela, then slipped out of the room and made a call. Guanajuato hospitals are expected to report suspicious miscarriages just as they would a gunshot wound. It wasn’t long before a couple of officers arrived, followed by a lawyer from the district attorney’s office, who took out a note pad. “So, Daniela, how many people have you had sex with?” he asked, jotting down the answers. “And who gave you those pills?” That night, the DA opened an official probe into Daniela’s case. If convicted, both she and Carlos’s mother—though not Carlos—faced up to three years in prison.
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Mexico has thirty-two states if you include Mexico City’s federal district, and until the spring of 2007, when Mexico City legalized it during the first twelve weeks of gestation, abortion was illegal in all of them. It was rarely prosecuted, though, and there were also legal exemptions. Every state had one for rape, and many to save the mother’s life; one state even had an exemption for economic hardship. Access, though, was another story. I once asked Rigoberto Velarde, the silver-haired state coordinator for Guanajuato’s Maternal Health Program, where a pregnant rape victim could get the procedure that was her legal right. Velarde drew back in his chair, widened his eyes and looked at me like I was crazy. “She can’t do that!” was his reply. Mexico’s abortion laws date back to the 1930s, and in the intervening decades two parallel systems have developed. Wealthy women could go to a private doctor or, since Roe v. Wade, travel to the United States. But any woman at the mercy of the public health system was pretty much on her own.
Mexico City’s legalization law, which required city hospitals to provide the service free, was the first in Mexico and one of few like it in Latin America (in many states the tide is turning in the other direction: in 2008 Nicaragua instituted a criminal prohibition on abortions, with no exemptions; in 2009 the Dominican Republic did the same). A month later, the National Human Rights Commission, whose director opposed the law, and the attorney general filed appeals with the Supreme Court, arguing that the law was unconstitutional. A long and closely watched debate roiled Mexico off and on for a year, until the justices finally voted to uphold the law, in August 2008. Abortion was now legal—and free—in the capital of one of the world’s most Catholic countries. It looked like a great victory for feminists.