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Abortion Settlement Awarded in Mexico

The case involving a 13-year-old rape victim is a major victory, women's groups say.

March 08, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Mexican officials said Tuesday that they would pay a legal settlement to a woman who was prevented from having an abortion after being raped at the age of 13, a decision hailed by women's rights groups as a landmark victory.

In Mexico, only rape victims or women whose lives are at risk are allowed to obtain abortions. But such women have faced innumerable bureaucratic, legal and cultural obstacles when trying to exercise that right in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country.

The settlement calls for the victim to be paid about $40,000 in legal and medical fees and reparations. The victim, who is now 19 and raising her son as a single mother, will also receive a government stipend for the child's education through high school.

In addition, Mexican federal and state officials agreed to take steps to ensure that prosecutors and healthcare workers comply with laws that guarantee rape victims' right to abortion.

"This is a triumph for all women," said Marta Lamas, one of Mexico's leading feminists and founder of the nonprofit Reproductive Choice Information Group. "After six years, the government has finally acknowledged that it denied this young woman her rights."

A spokeswoman for the Mexican Foreign Ministry confirmed Tuesday that the government had reached the agreement with the rape victim and would pay the reparations but offered no other comment.

Over the years, the case has provoked a divided response across Mexico.

"Human life in any situation or condition must be respected," Norberto Rivera Carrera, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Mexico City, said in 2000. "That child doesn't deserve to die just because he was the product of a rape."

Mexico, along with many other Latin American countries, has strict abortion laws. Teenagers raped by family members are not allowed to seek abortions -- in most Mexican states, the law defines incest as consensual sex. In addition, 12 is the legal age for consensual sex in most of Mexico.

In the U.S., South Dakota this week enacted a law forbidding all abortions including the few performed in cases of rape and incest. The only exception under the new ban -- which directly challenges the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision -- is in cases in which doctors determine an abortion is necessary to save a mother's life. Roe vs. Wade established abortion as a constitutional right.

The case of 13-year-old Paulina Ramirez, raped by a heroin addict in her Mexicali home, garnered international attention when it was reported in 1999.

Ramirez and her mother sought a legal abortion, but numerous Baja California state officials and public healthcare workers pressured her to carry her pregnancy to term.

Antiabortion activists visited Ramirez at the hospital, showing her pictures of aborted fetuses in a bid to persuade her to change her mind. The Baja California state attorney general drove her to see a priest who told her abortion was a sin.

Ramirez's son was born in 2000. Ramirez has spoken publicly about the case, and women's rights groups in the United States and Mexico have taken it up. They sued in local courts with little success.

In 2002 they filed a petition seeking redress with the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an international tribunal whose authority is recognized by Mexico.

In the agreement, the Mexican government recognized that Baja state officials violated federal law.

"This is the most important legal victory for women in Mexico in a decade," said Luisa Cabal of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the groups that represented Ramirez before the tribunal.

Cuba is the only Latin American country allowing abortion on demand. Other nations in the region allow abortion only in cases of rape or when the woman's life is at risk.

But "even in those places in Latin America ... women are denied access because of the religious beliefs of health providers," Cabal said.

The settlement is scheduled to be signed by Baja state representatives and Mexico's federal government today, which is International Women's Day. In announcing the settlement at a Mexico City news conference, New York-based Human Rights Watch also reported the results of a study on the difficulties Mexican rape victims faced in seeking legal abortions. Titled "The Second Assault," the report detailed the stories of numerous rape victims who were cajoled, intimidated and threatened into carrying their pregnancies to term.

The law that allows victims of rape to obtain legal abortions "is broadly supported by the Mexican people, but it is a right that is rarely respected in practice," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

"Many pregnant rape victims are essentially assaulted twice," Roth said, "first by their rapist and second by public officials who ignore them, insult them and deny them their right to a legal abortion."

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