MEXICO CITY — Weak from anesthesia, Teresa Juarez left the clandestine abortion clinic two hours after she had arrived. The fear that possessed her going into the illegal operation gave way to relief afterward.
"We couldn't afford another child, and I wasn't going to bring my baby into the world to suffer," recalled Juarez, 27. "I was done with the problem."
In fact, her problems were just beginning. On the way back to Mexico City from an industrial suburb, an unmarked car intercepted the white van carrying Juarez and four other women who had just undergone abortions. A man and a woman in civilian dress and armed with pistols expelled the driver of the van, then ordered the passengers to cover their heads, Juarez said.
"Assassins! Whores! Bitches!" Juarez said she heard them shout. The pair told a transit police officer who tried to stop the hijacking, "We're from (police) intelligence."
Juarez spent more than 14 hours incommunicado at a jail in Tlaxcoaque, on the outskirts of Mexico City, where she says she and the other women were slapped, pinched, kicked and forced to watch as a screaming, hooded man was repeatedly dunked in water.
"While you're watching, you wonder when they are going to do this to you," she said. "It was a nightmare that I couldn't believe was happening."
Arrests for abortion are not nearly as rare in Mexico as are public protests over the issue. Juarez, a member of the leftist Revolutionary Workers Party, said she has publicized the detentions because the women, released the next day with no charges filed, were mistreated.
The sensational case, also denounced by human rights activists, has been taken up by feminists and female legislators who launched a new drive last week to legalize abortion in Mexico.
The move comes at a time when legal abortion is under increasing attack in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court, which includes a number of conservative appointees of the Ronald Reagan Administration, plans on April 26 to hear a Missouri case that challenges the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
As complicated as the moral issue of abortion is in the United States, it grows even more complex in Mexico: Pro-choice arguments run up against a culture of \o7 machismo \f7 and the Roman Catholic Church; anti-abortionists encounter resistance from impoverished women.
Birth control was legalized in Mexico only in 1973. It is still common for employers to ask female job applicants to submit to a pregnancy test, and pregnant women frequently are fired.
The Mexican penal code prohibits abortion except in cases of rape and when the mother's life is endangered. A few states have more liberal laws allowing for abortions of deformed fetuses or, in Yucatan state, because of economic hardship.
But in practice, doctors and feminist groups say, it is virtually impossible to obtain a legal abortion even for pregnancies resulting from rape. The law does not specify who must authorize a legal abortion or who may perform one.
"It can take 11 months to get a legal abortion," said Maria del Carmen Sanchez, legal representative of the Support Center for Raped Women.
Dr. Manuel Urbina Fuentes, director of Family Planning in the Health Ministry, was uncertain about how a woman would go about obtaining a legal abortion. He said the government has no figures for legal abortions performed in Mexico.
The penalty for performing or undergoing an illegal abortion is automatically a suspended sentence, but doctors also will lose their medical licenses.
Women's groups attempted to change abortion laws 10 years ago but failed against resistance from anti-abortion groups and the powerful church. In 1983, the Mexican attorney general suggested liberalizing the law but quickly dropped the hot issue.
Pro-Choice Groups Optimistic
Mexico remains an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has made overtures to the church. But pro-choice groups are optimistic that the laws might be liberalized. They note that Catholic countries such as Italy have legalized abortion. They say more open discussion of family planning has changed the political climate. And they are buoyed by a newly fortified leftist opposition with many more seats in the National Congress than in 1979.
Anti-abortion groups say the possibility of legalizing abortion in Mexico is greater now than at any time since the abortion law was put on the books a half-century ago.
"The pressure has grown in the Chamber of Deputies with the increase in leftist parties," said Jorge Serrano Limon, president of the Pro-Vida anti-abortion group. "We have launched a campaign . . . telling (the deputies) they will be responsible for the spilling of blood if it is legalized."
Pro-choice groups also have begun a campaign to sway public opinion and they, too, are targeting federal deputies, particularly women from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.