In comparison to some Latin American countries (like Nicaragua) Mexico does not prohibit abortions in all circumstances. Legislation on abortion is a matter for each state to decide and all allow for the interruption of pregnancy in the case of sexual assault or when the mother’s life is in danger. Only the national capital, Mexico City, permits elective abortion until 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Unfortunately having a right to abortion enshrined in law does not guarantee that local health authorities will provide them if requested. Paulina Ramirez Jacinta was 14 years old when she was raped in the State of Baja California in 1999. Her parents reported the crime and obtained legal permission for their daughter to have an abortion. However, they could not find a doctor or hospital ready to perform the procedure. They complained to Mexico's supreme court, which ruled that health services follow directive NOM-046, which obliges health workers to provide abortions to those legally entitled to one.
Despite the laws it is still extremely difficult for a sexual assault victim to find qualified personnel willing to perform an abortion. In 2012 Human Rights Watch prepared a report for CEDAW in which it described how women and girls in this situation face excessively complicated procedures, illegal delays, lack of information or misinformation and intimidation from health care professionals. HRW also notes that rape victims are rarely informed of their right to an abortion when they report the crime. Consequently it is not uncommon for victims of all ages to continue pregnancies caused by assault. In 2010 reports named an 11-year-old Mayan Mexican girl as the youngest mother in the state of Quintana Roo, southeastern Mexico. She had been denied an abortion despite having been raped.
Human Rights Watch also mentions how recent constitutional reforms in Mexico have made the access to abortion even more difficult. The reforms in question are a reaction to the legalization of elective abortion in Mexico City. This was introduced in 2007 and has proved very controversial. Shortly after it became law, Mexico's presidential office, attorney general and human rights commission initiated proceedings in the country's supreme court to declare it unconstitutional on the grounds of violating the life of an unborn fetus. In 2010 Mexico's supreme court presented its verdict, rejecting the petitions. It affirmed that the federal constitution did not define life as starting at conception and upheld the constitutional right of district governments to legislate on abortion.
Conservative groups in other Mexican states responded with a push for the reform of their constitutions to ensure that articles referring to people's right to life and state duty to protect said right explicitly define life beginning at conception. Thus far 18 of Mexico's federal entities (comprising 31 states and federal districts) have passed this legislation.
These reforms seem to have two principal objectives: One to prevent the legalization of elective abortion outside Mexico City; the other to circumvent directive NOM-046, which obliges regional health services to provide abortion to victims of sexual violence. No one has been clearer on this subject than the governor of Jalisco, a traditionally conservative state. In 2009 Emilio Gonzalez Marquez declared that the directive promoted abortion and affirmed that the national secretary of health “could not legislate over the wishes of the Jalisco constitution nor oblige it to practice abortions, even in the case of rape.”
Cath Andrews is a professor of Mexican history.