Mexico decriminalizes abortion


On Sept. 6, Mexico decriminalized abortion at the federal level. Most states in Mexico still outlaw abortion, but at this time, people who need an abortion should be able to get one at health clinics and institutions run by the federal government. Mexican feminists will continue their struggle for abortion state by state for reproductive justice and bodily autonomy.

The history of abortion rights in Mexico is checkered, and conditions have changed dramatically in the last few years. In 1931, contraception was outlawed, and in 1974 this law was overturned with an amendment to the Mexican constitution guaranteeing the right for citizens to determine the “number and spacing of their children.” However, in 2000 the president, Vicente Fox, tightened restrictions on abortion, and the decade that followed brought a wide variety of levels of access across the 32 states in Mexico.

Feminist activists secured a victory in 2021, when the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion in the northern state of Coahuila. The court’s ruling last month builds on that victory and decriminalizes abortion for the whole country.

How did Mexican feminists win?

First and foremost, the feminist struggle for reproductive justice has involved networks of activists across countries. The “Green Tide” (Marea Verde) originated in Argentina in 2015, as news of gruesome femicides and rapes motivated women and allies to fight back. The rape and murder of Argentinian teenager Lucía Pérez in 2016 motivated a one-hour strike across all sectors of Argentinian society. The hashtag #NiUnaMenos was a slogan that arose from those mobilizations and spurred greater participation. At various protests, activists started wearing a green scarf (or pañuelo verde), which became a symbol for the movement across Latin America.

The feminist movement in Latin America has tied together multiple issues affecting women and Queer people, including but not limited to femicide, abortion, and the “feminized” poverty imposed by austerity politics and cuts to health care. Furthermore, the call for abortion rights has not been limited to the importance of individual choice, but the necessity for bodily autonomy and free, accessible health care. The mass mobilizations in Latin America also demonstrate the class nature of the movement, in which feminist demands have unified working people across sectors of society.

Feminist groups in Mexico have been quick to point out that even though decriminalization of abortion is a victory, it is only partial. The Mexican judiciary system is still entrenched against abortion rights, and many people, particularly the poorest and most exploited women, still lack access to reproductive health services.

What tactics and strategies were used?

In 2000, when the Mexican state of Guanajuato outlawed abortion even in the case of rape, a group of activists got together to create the collective Los Libres. This collective created a local network to fight state repression. One way they approached the struggle was by creating ways to “accompany” people who needed an abortion. Accompaniment for abortion could range from offering physical company when traveling to a clinic to offering virtual support through texting and messaging. They also found ways to distribute information and pills for self-medicated abortion, which increased the number of people and the places where they could assist. Los Libres is just one of the collectives doing this work.

Along with building networks to support individuals’ access to abortion, activists have also used mass street protests to apply pressure, build awareness, and control the framing of the struggle. By making bold demands that connected abortion to economic oppression, the Green Tide swept up masses of working people and influenced public opinion.

To a point, Mexican women’s rights activists view the decriminalization of abortion as an incidental compromise on the road to full victory. The specific policy of decriminalization has been the focus of liberal feminist groups, and the ruling Morena government, which relies on the support of anti-abortion evangelical groups, has seen it as an acceptable compromise. But the demands of the movement that is organizing mass marches go much further than just the decriminalization of abortion, with slogans focusing on an end to sexist violence and the institutions that enable it. They directly oppose the government, the judiciary, and the police. The decriminalization of abortion is a step forward, and it is only possible thanks to the uncompromising movement taking the streets. But it is not the final goal of the Green Tide flooding through Latin America.

Lessons learned and the struggle ahead

In many ways, the U.S. is in a situation opposite that of Mexico. Whereas Mexico just decriminalized abortion on the federal level, and now must reinforce this right in each state, the U.S. Supreme Court no longer protects the right to abortion federally, although it remains legal in the majority of states. Regardless of these differences, U.S. feminists must learn from the ways that Latin American people brought abortion to the center of a wide variety of public spaces—from the workplace and unions to mainstream media. It was not a fringe issue, or a single issue, but one that served as a linchpin for interconnected struggles under capitalism.

In the U.S., one of the weaknesses of the movement around Roe v. Wade was that it emphasized the importance of individual choice, rather than bolder, more overarching demands for full bodily autonomy and the need for universal health care. Furthermore, mass feminist mobilizations in the U.S., like the Women’s March in 2020, centered on electoral politics and largely associated themselves with the Democratic Party, as opposed to orienting toward the working class and staying politically independent.

As the U.S. feminist movement enters a new era of struggle, and what was taken to be common sense is overturned, an opening has been gained for militant possibilities. The U.S. masses can see more clearly that the forward march of time does not guarantee improvement in conditions; the Supreme Court has overturned affirmative action and abortion rights during the last two years. With conservative Christian forces flexing their power in the U.S., the victory in Mexico also offers an optimistic lesson about organizing against restrictive religious agendas. Mexico is majority Catholic, yet the Marea Verde created a new status quo, one in which religion and culture are not at odds with women’s rights and human rights.

In Mexico, in the aftermath of the Sept 6. ruling, there is still plenty of work ahead. Abortion must be decriminalized at the state level, and the federal policy must be implemented with fidelity. Bold demands against austerity politics and poverty and for full bodily autonomy will guide the fight forward.

As we have learned from the example of Roe v. Wade in the United States, bodily autonomy and reproductive justice will never be secure within the undemocratic framework of capitalism. It will take an international social revolution that puts an end to gender-based oppression to guarantee our reproductive rights once and for all.

Photo: Alejandro Muñoz / Shutterstock

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