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Control and Coercion: The Threats to Abortion Rights in Mexico

 ________________________________________ Control and Coercion: The Threats to Abortion Rights in Mexico By Marcy Bloom Created Apr 28 2010 – 7:00am Sometimes the struggle for the reproductive justice and the dignity and freedom of women and girls takes on especially compelling and tragic dimensions. This is one of them. Recently, the heart-rending case of a 10-year-old girl who became pregnant [1] as a result of rape by her stepfather in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatán Peninsula (also home to the popular resort of Cancun) was made public by the media. According to GIRE-Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida [2], whose National Lawyers’ Network for the Defense of Reproductive Choice contacted the girl and her mother, it emerged that they had apparently received biased information from authorities about their rights and access to abortion. Abortion is highly restricted in all of Mexico (except for Mexico City), but it is supposed to be available in cases of certain situations such as rape. However, it is very common for state health and legal officials to blatantly ignore the law, lie to women, and deny women and girls their rights. This latest shocking but tragically frequent outcome in Quintana Roo has brought to public attention the outrageous incidents of sexual violence that shape the lives of young girls in that state: in fact, 881 girls became pregnant as a result of rape in that state alone in 2009. These are not isolated incidents. As it stands now, this girl and her mother have decided to continue the pregnancy, even after receiving objective information from GIRE, and the case has become a symbol of the violent context and denial of women’s and girls’ rights that exist in Quintana Roo and throughout Mexico. The girl’s stepfather has been arrested, the child is in the custody of child protective services, and she is now close to 19 weeks pregnant (her pregnancy was not discovered and diagnosed until a month ago). In a report from Fox News [3], which refers to the girl as now being 11 years old, anti-choice activists claim that women’s groups have shown up at the girls’ home with plane tickets to take her out of the state in attempts to pressure her to have an abortion. This is, of course, a typical and standard anti-choice tactic; an attempt to stigmatize the choice of abortion and to discredit and vilify pro-choice groups whose only goal and concerns are to advocate for the girl (and her mother) to truly make her own decision with accurate, non-biased, and non-judgmental information. María Luisa Sánchez Fuentes, executive director of GIRE, strongly countered that outrageous claim and stated that it appears that officials did not inform the child and her mother of her right to an abortion. “We don’t know (exactly) what is happening, and the institution that is supposed to provide care and support for these minors hasn’t been transparent. We’re really asking for accountability….(We) have just wanted to inform them of their choices….no organization advocating for women and girls would ever force anyone to have an abortion against her will.” Ms. Sánchez Fuentes indicated that the family was very poor, was being taken advantage of by the state government, and was very likely too scared to make a decision other than the one proposed by the government: to have the baby. In addition, the girl is small for her age and forcing her to give birth puts her life in danger. She will need constant medical attention and, ultimately, a Cesarean section. Conservative forces further claim that abortion-rights activists have tried to coerce and manipulate the girl and have turned her into the face of their international campaign to legalize abortion. This would be laughable if it was not so gut-wrenching; after all, who is manipulating and coercing who to do what? Anti-choice groups indicate that “abortion was never an option and the girl and her mother never thought about it.” Perhaps that is because they were never truthfully informed of it? They state that the child has recently seen an ultrasound image of a female fetus and has happily named her baby Alejandra [3]. She wishes that name was her own, is “enthusiastic” and “very much into motherhood.” Putting aside for a moment the obvious question of how such a young child and rape victim can truly comprehend the gravity of, and be “into,” motherhood (if indeed this is not standard anti-choice propaganda and rhetoric), a core issue is the reality of abortion rights and access to accurate and non-judgmental information and safe abortion care in Mexico. Mexican women and girls risk their lives and health [4] to obtain abortions and there are at least 600,000 to one million illegal abortions annually in the country. At least 1,500 women die of medical complications following abortion every year and there are estimates of at least 50,000-100,000 post-abortion complications that are treated in health facilities every year. Abortion is the third to fourth highest cause of maternal mortality in Mexico. And even under the very limited circumstances (such as rape, fetal deformity, and danger to the woman’s life) where abortion has been theoretically legal throughout the country, there are numerous personal, cultural, and religious biases, as well as outright obstruction and a lack of referral mechanisms in the health and legal sectors, that far too often conspire to deny women their legal right to abortion. [2] This is a well-documented country-wide pattern. A rape occurs in Mexico every four minutes and these women and girls are denied their right to abortion as well [5], even though rape is one of alleged exceptions. Paulina Rámirez is one of these women. In 1999, at the age of 13, she was raped in her home. When she discovered that she was pregnant as result of this horrific trauma, she and her mother petitioned the government of her state (Baja California) for an abortion. However, she was manipulated, pressured, and deceived by anti-choice activists to change her mind and, in fact, the attorney general of her state actually took her to a priest for so-called counseling. His version of counseling consisted of attempting to intimidate Paulina and her mother with declarations of abortion as a mortal sin. In addition, the director of the hospital where the abortion was supposed to be performed showed the teen-ager and her mother photos of aborted fetuses and discussed death and infertility as common outcomes of legal abortion (apparently this medical “professional’s” personal version of informed consent). With this relentless campaign of intimidation, threats and lies, the frightened Paulina broke down and decided that she had no choice but to continue the pregnancy. When her son was born, she petitioned the local Mexican courts for redress, with little success. But in 2006, four years after a case had been filed by GIRE, the Center for Reproductive Rights [4], and other advocacy groups on her behalf (Paulina Rámirez v.Mexico) in the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, Paulina was granted reparations. This was a tremendous victory for the women of Mexico, as it was the first time that a Latin American government acknowledged that access to legal abortion is a human right and the Mexican government was also now required to issue guidelines to its 31 states and ensure that this right was no longer violated. Mexico appeared to be continuing on the path to expand the right to safe and legal abortion when, on April 24, 2007, another incredible victory for women’s lives occurred when abortion during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy was decriminalized in Mexico City (the nation’s liberal capital). And on August 28th, 2008, yet another hard-fought victory took place when the Mexican Supreme Court voted 8 to 3 to constitutionally uphold the right to abortion for all of the women of Mexico. Mexico then became the biggest country in Latin America to have such a liberal abortion law, based on reproductive rights as human rights, safe and voluntary motherhood, the right to safe abortion care, and reproductive justice. It was an incredible and hopeful time for the very real possibility of the expansion of abortion rights to continue throughout the country. But a strong backlash to these significant changes for women and girls began quickly and has been relentless. While Mexico City’s hospitals have performed close to 40,000 legal abortions since abortion was decriminalized, demonstrating the compelling need for this important right and safe women’s health service, more than 50 women in outlying states have been jailed for obtaining an abortion. In the coastal state of Veracruz, at least five women are serving 12-to-15 year sentences for aborting a pregnancy after having been found guilty of homicide. The November 2009 changes to this state’s constitution include a clause that women who illegally obtain abortions can avoid jail time by accepting medical and psychological treatment. This change will “defend the right to life and protect women.” (Note from this author: really? how?) Reacting to this outrageous law, a leader of the liberal Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Margarita Guillaumín said : “Now women who feel driven to abort are ill, crazy, unhinged, perturbed-and they are going to rehabilitate them? Hallelujah!” And in yet another especially odd and oppressive law in the state of Jalisco, a minimum of four to 12 month sentences [6] are imposed on women for having an abortion if they meet four conditions: they have a “bad reputation,” (note from this writer: who gets to judge that?), sought an abortion as result of an “illegitimate union,” attempted to hide the pregnancy, and had the abortion within the first trimester. If one of these requirements is not fulfilled, then the sentence is doubled. If two are not met, it is tripled. Did I say confusing, punitive, shocking, and really strange? Already, 17 states have altered their constitutions to declare that life begins at conception, effectively making abortion a crime in those states where it was already prohibited, highly restricted, and typically impossible to obtain. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) has close ties to the powerful and influential Catholic Church and, not surprisingly, the anti-abortion laws it has proposed in these states is remarkably similar to the beliefs and words of the Mexican clergy and the Catholic hierarchy. In fact, after Mexico City’s momentous 2007 decriminalization of abortion, Pope Benedict wrote a letter to Mexican bishops, encouraging them to vociferously oppose the law. Church leaders in Mexico soon followed by threatening to excommunicate any politician who supported the new law. “It’s not revenge, it’s just what happens in the case of serious sins,” said the archbishop of Acapulco. [7] So while celibate men whose Church is its own ethical crisis decide the fate of women’s health and bodies, the influential participation of the Church is both overt and covert, as Mexico has a Catholic majority but is constitutionally a secular state. Working behind political parties and other conservative organizations, there is no doubt that the Church’s influence in the health, lives, and destinies of women remains powerful and destructive, even as it is overstepping constitutional boundaries. This was recently also a common concern in the United States, when the U.S. National Council of Catholic Bishops raised its voice in its absolute desire to exclude abortion coverage from any health care reform package. These oppressive legislative restrictions in Mexico have created severe repercussions for women and have pushed many women to take extraordinary measures. It is well known that women will do just about anything to obtain abortions and so the women of Mexico are traveling from across the country to public hospitals in the capital, to private clinics in the U.S., to back-alley abortions, and/or or to self-abort with the pharmaceutical misoprostol and other techniques. As Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider with four offices in Texas which serve large numbers of Mexican women who are able to cross the border, stated [8]: “The legality of abortion changes the kind of abortion a woman will have, but not the number of women who will have abortions.” Indeed, a 2009 report from the Guttmacher Institute [9] clearly demonstrates that despite abortion being essentially illegal in virtually all of Mexico, abortion is 40 percent more prevalent in that country than in the United States. Dr. Fatima Juarez, the study’s author, noted: “These findings confirm research from other parts of the world: that making abortion illegal does not significantly decrease its frequency, it just makes it unsafe and puts women’s lives at risk.” Of course. This, too, is a universal and documented pattern. Women are, yet again, treated as expendable, disposable, and requiring control and punishment. When this story first broke in the U.S., I received a note from a physician I know. Protecting his/her identity with this information, the note read: “These cases such as the one of the ten year old from Quintana Roo touch a place very deep in my heart. It seems so amazing that some people impose their beliefs on an innocent child. ….in a way that will forever affect her. Does anyone truly believe that there is any positive end to her being forced to continue the pregnancy?” Apparently and tragically, many do….and in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, this skilled abortion provider also offered to pay for the child’s and her mother’s flight to the U.S., to cover all costs of food, lodging, and other needs, and do her abortion himself at no charge. Although this is not meant to be, such acts of compassion and concern give me hope for the future even as women’s lives and abortion rights in Mexico continue to be under severe attack. In the meantime, the pregnant young rape victim, still in state custody, and allegedly “excited” with her growing abdomen carrying baby Alejandra, is receiving constant attention and medical care. One of her medical concerns has been malnutrition, and, according to Fox News (April 23, 2010) “the focus has been on “providing the girl with lots of vegetables, vitamins, and folic acid.” If only this child had been able to receive all of the loving attention, healthy food, educational opportunities, and medical care her growing mind and body needed well before she became pregnant. If only the state deemed her as worthy and significant even without a pregnancy growing in her body. I wish that she was regarded as having value as a young child even without a fetus. Do I wish for too much? I don’t think so. • ________________________________________