News & Current Affairs

Mexico's Supreme Court Decriminalizes Abortion

By Azeezat Okunlola | Sep 7, 2023

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of Mexico ruled that all federal criminal penalties for abortion are unconstitutional and violate women's rights. This landmark decision continues the Latin American trend of increasing access to abortion and represents another triumph for reproductive rights advocates throughout Latin America. 

Two years ago, the same court had instructed the northern state of Coahuila to eliminate abortion sanctions from its criminal code, setting off a complex process of legal challenges on a state-by-state basis. To date, 12 out of Mexico's 31 states have decriminalized abortion. The court's judgment stands as a significant victory for the Information Group for Chosen Reproduction (GIRE), a reproductive rights organization headquartered in Mexico City, which initiated this pivotal legal case as part of its longstanding campaign for reform.

Legal abortion was ruled to be decriminalized by the Supreme Court. The decision mandates that all federally funded healthcare facilities provide abortion services to anyone who requests them.

"No woman or pregnant person, nor any health worker, will be able to be punished for abortion,” the Information Group for Chosen Reproduction (GIRE), said in a statement.

However, in about 20 of Mexico's states, abortion remains illegal. Judges in those states must follow the court's ruling, but additional legal work is needed to completely wipe out the penalties.

On X, former Supreme Court justice and current senator Olga Sanchez Cordero expressed her approval of the decision, calling it a step forward toward "a more just society in which the rights of all are respected." She urged the Mexican Congress to pass a law in response to the situation.

However, many in the religious nation criticized the choice. Director of the Civil Association for the Rights of the Conceived, Irma Barrientos, said that opponents of greater access to abortion will keep up their fight.

"We're not going to stop," Barrientos vowed. "Let's remember what happened in the United States. After 40 years, the Supreme Court reversed its abortion decision, and we're not going to stop until Mexico guarantees the right to life from the moment of conception."

On X, the court declared that "the legal system that criminalized abortion" in Mexican federal law was unconstitutional because it "violates the human rights of women and people with the ability to gestate."

Last week, Aguascalientes, a state in the centre of the country, joined the ranks of those that no longer impose criminal penalties. The decision on Wednesday should make it easier for abortion-rights advocates to pursue legalization on a state-by-state basis.

Sub-director and legal expert for women's rights group IPAS, Fernanda Diaz de Leon, clarified that the ruling does not yet mean that all Mexican women will have immediate access to the procedure. Diaz de Leon said removing the federal ban takes away another excuse used by care providers to deny abortions in states where the procedure is no longer a crime.

She also added that it allows women with formal employment who are part of the social security system and government employees to seek the procedure in federal institutions in states where abortion is still criminalized.

Diaz de Leon and other feminist leaders are concerned that some women, especially in more conservative regions, may still be denied access to abortion care.

"It is a very important step," Diaz de Leon said. But "we need to wait to see how this is going to be applied and how far it reaches."

A "green wave," named after the green bandanas worn by women protesting for abortion rights across Latin America, has led to a loosening of abortion laws in several countries in recent years.

Changes in Latin America are striking in comparison to the tightening of abortion laws in some US states. Some American women had already begun contacting abortion rights advocates in Mexico for assistance in obtaining abortion pills.

Fifteen years ago, Mexico City was the first jurisdiction in Mexico to legalize abortion. Activists in the region worked on this for decades, and in 2020, it was finally passed into law in Argentina. Even conservative Colombia followed suit in 2022.

Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion throughout the United States, was overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States last year. Since then, many states under the control of conservative legislatures and governors have passed bans or significantly increased existing regulations.

There are currently 15 states in the US that outright ban abortion at any point during the pregnancy. Two additional states have banned abortions after detecting cardiac activity, which occurs around six weeks into pregnancy (long before most women are aware they are pregnant). At this time, at least four additional states have had enforcement of restrictions halted by the courts.

Marina Reyna, director of the Guerrero Association Against Violence Toward Women, warned that problems would continue to arise in the southern state of Guerrero. Despite the fact that abortion was legalized in her state last year, there are currently 22 active investigations into women who have been accused of terminating their pregnancies.