Mexico City Set to Legalize Abortions of Choice

The Mexico City Assembly is poised to pass a measure that would legalize abortion during the first trimester. Current law only allows abortions in cases of rape or for medical concerns.

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While the U.S. Supreme Court recently moved to limit abortion, Mexico is preparing to take its biggest yet in liberalizing its abortion laws. The national assembly in the capital, Mexico City, is poised today to approve legislation that would legalize abortion during the first trimester. Currently, abortion is allowed only in cases of rape or for medical reasons.

Michael O'Boyle reports from Mexico City.

MICHAEL O'BOYLE: On Sunday, nearly 2,000 people turned out to protest legalizing first-trimester abortions in Mexico City, tearing(ph) the images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, protestors prayed and chanted as they march through the city center. Dulce Maria(ph), a 22-year-old student said the bill mark a moral decline of Mexico's largely conservative culture.

Ms. DULCE MARIA (Student): (Through translator) This will unleash other things that haven't been allowed in Mexico yet like euthanasia. Then soon, they will pass other laws that of against God and the church.

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O'BOYLE: The protest ended with mass in the National Cathedral. Mexico has the second largest Catholic population, behind Brazil. But Mexico City is a liberal enclave. The leftist party holds a strong majority in the city's assembly. Last year, lawmakers approved legislation that allows for gay civil unions, and the abortion bill is expected to pass easily in today's vote.

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Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

O'BOYLE: The patio of a woman's right center has been transformed into a theater. It's become a gathering place for abortion rights activists from all over Latin America. Ximena Bustamante organized this event. She's an adviser to the head of the capital's Women's Institute.

Ms. XIMENA BUSTAMANTE: (Event Organizer; Adviser, National Women's Institute): The law is like, just the beginning, you know? We have to see how results of this are going to work. If the women are going to use this new law or not, you know - if the woman are going to know that this law exists. Because if you're a (unintelligible) and you have the patients, maybe you don't know that you can have - you have the option.

O'BOYLE: Abortion is already legal in the case of rape or when a woman's life is in danger. While abortion for reasons of choice has been illegal, it is anything but uncommon. Despite the ban, women's rights groups say there are around 500,000 clandestine abortions per year. Maria Luisa Sanchez is a leading abortion rights activist.

Ms. MARIA LUISA SANCHEZ (Abortion Rights Activist): You know, having abortion illegal makes you take so many unnecessary steps, you know? Or measures. Because you're afraid of everything.

O'BOYLE: Sanchez says given Mexico's conservative culture, abortion activists have been careful not to push arguments based on a woman's right to decide. Rather, they have focused on proving clandestine abortions are a public health issue. The wealthy already have access to abortion on demand at private clinics in Mexico, or via a flight to the United States. But the poor often turn to midwives or unsafe doctors.

Dr. Rafaela Chivon(ph) runs the Mexican chapter of International Women's Health Organization, IPAS.

Dr. RAFAELA CHIVON (International Women's Health Organization, Mexico): Young women, poorest woman are the ones who tend to resort to an induced abortion later in pregnancy. They expose themselves to more dangerous procedures.

O'BOYLE: Unsafe abortions kill around 100 women per year, according to official figures. Activists say the number is much higher. The bill to legalize first trimester abortion will create the country's first government-funded women's health clinics dedicated to providing abortions. While the bill is expected to be approved in today's vote, conservative politicians have vowed to challenge the legislation before the Supreme Court.

Jorge Serrano is the leader of the far-right ProVida, or pro-life organization.

Mr. JORGE SERRANO (ProVida, Mexico): (Through translator) The Supreme Court has established that life from conception is protected. And that is where the controversy will center.

O'BOYLE: President Felipe Calderon, a staunch Catholic, opposes abortion. But he has remained on the sidelines of the debate. Liberalizing abortion laws outside of Mexico City could face greater challenges. Opposition to abortion is more widespread in Mexico's rural, conservative communities.

For NPR News, I'm Michael O'Boyle in Mexico City.

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