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Mexico begins abortion bill hearings

Those on both sides of the debate issue fervent pleas. The measure would legalize the procedure in the capital.

March 29, 2007|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Lawmakers began hearings Wednesday on a proposal to legalize most abortions in this capital city, amid impassioned arguments from women's groups that support the bill and Roman Catholic groups that are firmly opposed.

A vote by the city's Legislative Assembly is not scheduled until mid-April, though passage seems likely. Mexican feminists say the legalization of abortion in this city of more than 8 million people would be a landmark for the Latin American women's movement.

"We've been working for this day for 36 years, and it's almost here," said Marta Lamas, one of the nation's leading feminists and founder of the nonprofit Reproductive Choice Information Group.

Cuba, Guyana and Puerto Rico are the only places in Latin America where abortion is available on demand. Staunchly Catholic Mexico is ruled by the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, which is fiercely opposed to abortion. But the government of Mexico City's Federal District is controlled by the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, which made passage of the abortion-rights measure part of its platform in last year's national and regional elections.

The legislation could allow thousands of women across the country to travel to Mexico City for safe, legal abortions, advocates say.

Illegal abortion is so widespread that most private medical facilities quietly offer it, activists say. About 1 million abortions are performed in Mexico each year, they say -- in places ranging from the nation's ritziest hospitals to clandestine home "clinics" in poor neighborhoods.

Catholic groups have organized several marches and rallies against the measure, calling it an offense against nature and the unborn, and the work of "tiny groups of feminists" who support a "culture of death."

But on Wednesday, antiabortion activists made up only a handful of the 100 or so people attending the first of several hearings on the matter.

"There's a lot of talk here about human rights, but I find it strange that people aren't talking about the human right par excellence, which is the right to life," said Yolanda Pena, an attorney who spoke out against the legislation.

A series of lawmakers and academics who spoke in favor of the bill said it was essential to protecting women's health. They referred to the measure as one to "decriminalize" abortion rather than legalizing it.

"The fact that abortions are taking place throughout the country is an undeniable fact," said Maria Alejandra Nuno Ruiz, a member of the city's Human Rights Commission.

Botched abortions are the fifth-leading cause of death for women in Mexico and the third-leading cause in Mexico City, she said.

According to studies here, about 2,000 to 3,000 Mexican women die every year of complications from illegal abortions.

Mexico City law calls for a one- to three-year prison sentence for women who receive abortions. But prosecutions are extremely rare.

"Our jails are not filled with women who've received illegal abortions," said Patricia Galeana, a historian who addressed Wednesday's hearing. "They're in the cemeteries."

Doctors who perform the procedure face eight- to 10-year sentences. But they also are rarely prosecuted.

In 2000, the city's Legislative Assembly approved a law allowing abortion in cases of rape or when the mother's health was at risk. The law was upheld two years later by Mexico's Supreme Court.

The new legislation would allow a woman to obtain an abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

President Felipe Calderon issued a carefully worded statement last week saying he supported the existing law in Mexico City and suggesting that the PRD majority would be "steamrolling" the values of others if it voted to legalize abortion.

"There are issues which involve deeply held beliefs of the Mexican people and they should be dealt with carefully," Calderon said.

Jorge Serrano Limon and his Pro-Life National Committee have held rallies against the bill.

"The proposal ... would create a veritable genocide in our country, especially in the Federal District," Serrano Limon said in an interview.

He said his group would call on doctors and nurses to organize "civil disobedience" against the measure if it passes.

"Unfortunately, there will always be killer doctors who lend themselves to these operations," he said. "But we're sure the majority will be with us because not everyone has a criminal mentality."

Serrano Limon said the number of women who die in botched abortions nationwide each year is less than 100.

The Catholic Church remains a powerful force in Mexican society. In recent weeks, priests across the country have addressed abortion in their sermons.

This month, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera urged worshipers at Sunday Mass in this city's Guadalupe Basilica to fight the measure.

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