MEXICO CITY — It was classic Vicente Fox. The grinning president-elect, with his trademark bushy mustache, offered Mexicans his well-known phrase: "There won't be one single reason to turn back nostalgically to the past."
"We're already there," he added, holding up a newspaper headline about a vote to tighten the antiabortion law in Guanajuato, his home state.
The smiling Fox was penned by an artist at the Mexico City daily La Jornada, which ran the cartoon with the caption, "Welcome to the 17th century."
The Guanajuato vote has sparked a nationwide outcry--and muddied the waters of a remarkably smooth transition from 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
These days, national news broadcasts are filled with women demonstrating, feminists threatening hunger strikes and national political parties denouncing the Guanajuato vote.
Their concern: that the decision could be the first salvo in a crusade by Fox's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, to impose its Roman Catholic beliefs on a country that has rigorously separated church from state.
"We called on people to not vote for Fox. We were afraid of this. Really, we are beginning to see our fears confirmed," said Marta Lamas, a prominent feminist and director of the Mexico City-based Group of Information on Reproductive Choice.
Fox has insisted in recent days that he doesn't plan to introduce constitutional changes on abortion, which is currently regulated at the state level and is illegal except in cases such as rape. But the PAN is scrambling to quiet fears that it will implement nationwide the kind of conservative measures it has taken in some states.
"Please don't identify the PAN with fundamentalism," pleaded Patricia Espinosa, a congressional deputy and part of a party delegation that met with feminist demonstrators here in the capital Monday.
The abortion controversy underscores the special church-state relationship in Mexico--one of myriad arrangements that could change with the arrival of a new party in the presidency.
Mexico is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. But for decades, fervently secular PRI governments placed harsh restrictions on the church to prevent it from wielding the kind of political, cultural and economic power that it had held in the Spanish colonial era.
Those restrictions have eased in the last few years. Still, many Mexicans were outraged when Fox used his Catholic faith as a theme in the campaign.
Since his July 2 victory, the president-elect has declared that he will rule by consensus, and not follow local PAN officials who have generated controversy through measures such as banning employees from wearing miniskirts. Lamas, the feminist, said, however, that "what is happening in Guanajuato throws doubt on whether the PAN will really be able to have the type of government Fox has promised."
The Guanajuato bill, passed Aug. 3, eliminated the only exception to the state's antiabortion law--cases in which women became pregnant through rape. The rest of Mexico's states permit abortion in that case and a few others, such as malformation of the fetus.
Passage of the new measure kicked off a fierce debate, with the church and antiabortion activists hailing it.
"It's not valid to kill a human being under any circumstance. In the case of rape, who is to blame--the child?" declared a Catholic bishop, the Rev. Onesimo Cepeda.
But opposition to the bill was intense. Major political parties and feminists denounced it. The PAN's national leadership--which will need allies to pass legislation in the national Congress--also criticized the measure.
Adding to the storm were widely publicized protests by Maria Elena Jacinta of Baja California, whose 14-year-old daughter became pregnant through a rape last year. In a case that caused an uproar, state PAN officials pressured the girl to desist when she sought an abortion.
Guanajuato officials quickly backpedaled.
Fox loyalist Ramon Martin Huerta, who succeeded the president-elect as governor, indicated that he won't give the original bill his imprimatur, as required for it to become law, and called for consultations with supporters and opponents. Then the PAN, which has a relative majority in the local chamber, announced that it would eliminate the three-year jail term it had stipulated for rape victims who get abortions.
"We want to make it clear that we are not in favor of punishing raped women," said Ricardo Torres Origel, coordinator of the local PAN legislators. "Rather, we want to protect life."