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Mexico City a progressive outlier in nation’s patchwork of abortion laws

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To show their support of safe abortions, activists displayed 8,000 self portraits in downtown Mexico City. (AP/Alexandre Meneghini)

This episode of the Worldview was orginally broadcast on August 9, 2011.

Tuesday we continue our week-long look at abortion laws in other parts of the world. It’s part of our occasional series Here, There, where we look at how other cultures approach challenges we face at home.

Now we turn our eyes to Mexico, which, much like the U.S., has laws that vary from state to state. In 2008, Mexico City became the first – and so far only – place in the country to legalize voluntary abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy. Like Washington, D.C., Mexico City does not belong to any state. 

Not surprisingly, decriminalizing abortion was a controversial move in the strongly Catholic country. Fifty-three percent of Mexico's states are still advocating to impose stricter bans on abortion or criminalize it entirely.

Tuesday on Worldview

To learn more, we talk to Ana Langer, director of the Women and Health Initiative at Harvard University’s School of Public Health. She talks about the situation in Mexico and describes four Latin American countries that ban abortion under all circumstances, including rape and health of the mother: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile and Uruguay.

On how the law became possible:

"A number of factors came together to make reform possible: A leftist government, which has been ruling the city since the late ‘90s, almost 14 years now; a very, very active civil society with feminist groups playing an important role; and good information about the toll that unsafe abortion took on women in the capitol city and on women in the country in general in terms of morbidity and mortality."

On the Supreme Court ratifying the law:

"The judges came to the conclusion that the law was constitutional. . . which came as a surprise to all of us. . . The Supreme Court is quite conservative."

On the anti-abortion backlash prompted by the law:

"Usually what happens in the capitol city has a strong impact on the rest of the country. But in this case, that didn’t happen.  In fact, what happened was completely opposite to that. Since the law was approved, 17 out of 32 states – 53 percent – have now passed initiatives or reforms to ban abortion entirely."

On the impact on access:

"A large number of women . . . travel to Mexico City to get abortions. The procedure is free for residents of Mexico City, but for those who travel they have to pay a fee, but the fee is very modest. . . In the states where abortion is banned, obviously, women with financial resources access abortion, which has always been the case. The poorer women have more difficulty in getting the procedure done at all."

Has this changed the number of abortions?

"It’s difficult to know the number of abortions performed before the law. . . there weren’t any reliable statistics. But if we count legal abortions, the change was amazing – from a few dozen every year to. . . 52,000 by January [of 2011]."

On the political dimensions compared to the U.S.:

"In Mexico you don’t see those people demonstrating outside of clinics. Never, ever has a provider been killed so far. . . People may pass judgment on women who seek abortions but it’s not aggressive. . .The situation is not as polarized as in the U.S." 

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