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In Mexico, abortion is out from shadows

The stigma attached to it has begun to fade as large numbers of legal procedures have been done in the capital.

November 03, 2007|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — On the five-hour bus ride from Guadalajara to this capital city, Rocio Medeles cried over her misfortune.

She was a 26-year-old single mother, pregnant by a man who was about to marry someone else. In the past, she would have been presented with a stark choice: Have the baby, or risk permanent damage to her health at one of Guadalajara's many underground abortion clinics.

But in April, legislators decriminalized abortion in Mexico City's Federal District, about 350 miles away. Since May, more than 3,400 women have received abortions at 14 of the capital's public hospitals.

"If it hadn't been for the option to go to the Federal District, I probably wouldn't have risked a clandestine abortion," said Medeles, who traveled to Mexico City for the procedure in September with her 6-year-old daughter. "I might have had the baby, although I probably would have given it up for adoption."

Abortion remains illegal in the rest of Mexico, as it is in nearly all of Latin America. A group of activists, most of whom are Roman Catholics, routinely picket public hospitals here to condemn abortion.

But in Mexico City, legalization is bringing a profound, if quiet, change to the way thousands of women lead their lives. In a country where unwanted pregnancies often strip women of their independence and ambitions, the extraordinary number of legal abortions taking place every day is beginning to diminish the procedure's considerable cultural stigma.

"When people think of abortion, they no longer think of a hidden, shameful, illegal, clandestine and expensive procedure that is full of risks," said Marta Lamas, who founded Mexico's leading abortion rights group in 1992.

Ana, a 22-year-old Mexico City law student, decided to have a legal abortion after much soul-searching and worry.

"I thought about being pregnant with my studies half-done, with my parents yelling at me, and my boyfriend desperate about money," Ana, who asked that her last name not be published, wrote in an e-mail to The Times. "I thought, 'I don't want this for my life.' "

Ana's experience at a Mexico City public hospital included pre- and post-abortion counseling sessions. Like most women undergoing abortions at public hospitals here, she paid nothing for the procedure.

City officials say a range of women and girls have had abortions at the city's hospitals since May, including at least one 11-year-old. A quarter came from outside the city, officials said, some from as far as Baja California, more than 1,000 miles away.

Mexico's Supreme Court is expected to rule early next year on a petition to have Mexico City's law overturned on constitutional grounds. Abortion opponents are skeptical about their chances.

"It will be difficult, because attitudes are changing," said Jorge Serrano Limon, leader of the National Pro-Life Committee, the leading antiabortion group here. "The pro-abortion current is growing tremendously. At the beginning, there was resistance in the medical community. Now there isn't any."

Serrano Limon fears that two Mexican states with leftist governments, Guerrero and Tabasco, might legalize abortion soon. Venezuela and Brazil could be next in the region to change abortion laws.

"This has been the bitterest battle because now we are seeing killing at a large scale," said Serrano Limon, who formed the National Pro-Life Committee when Mexico's Communist Party first proposed legalizing abortion in the 1970s.

Serrano Limon lashed out at Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard for signing the bill into law less than a day after it was approved by the city legislature, dominated by the mayor's Democratic Revolution Party. Ebrard's public health department has worked to make abortion available to any woman who wants one and whose pregnancy has not progressed beyond 12 weeks.

"The Aztecs sacrificed prisoners of war, but not even they killed as many people as Marcelo Ebrard is killing now," Serrano Limon said.

The votes of eight of the 11 jurists on the Supreme Court would be needed to overturn the law on the grounds that it violates the rights of the unborn. But Serrano Limon and others count at least four jurists already in the abortion rights camp.

Legalization supporters say that with each day that passes, it is less likely that the court will overturn the law and drive abortion back underground.

Many of the old secret "clinics" that offered the cheapest and most dangerous surgical abortions, usually for about $400, have closed. Private hospitals that once charged as much as $2,000 for an illegal abortion have been forced to sharply reduce their prices, Lamas says.

"The aura of sin, fear and economic extortion is gone," Lamas said.

Still, many of the women who have received the first legal, "on-demand" abortions in Mexican history are entering unknown emotional territory. Some say they approach the decision with dread.

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