Abortion continues to dominate the headlines in Latin America. In El Salvador, women have been jailed for seeking care at hospitals for obstetric complications and miscarriages, which were falsely reported as abortions to local authorities. A group of these women, known as “Las 17,” are serving up to 40 years in jail because El Salvador prohibits abortion in all circumstances. In Paraguay, where you can only get an abortion if your life is in danger, the country’s restrictive abortion legislation has also come under fire. A case getting much international attention involves a 10-year-old girl, raped by her stepfather, who has been denied an abortion.
Mexico has now joined the fray, but in this case, it is good news. The state of Tlaxcala, located to the east of Mexico City, passed an amendment expanding the exceptions in which abortion is not criminalized. A woman may now terminate a pregnancy in the case of rape, incest, fetal malformation, and when her life or health is at risk.
With a population of roughly 1 million, Tlaxcala joins Mexico City (Distrito Federal), Baja California Sur, and Colima as the four states with the most exceptions to the country’s ban on abortion. Mexico City remains the only district that permits abortion on any grounds in the first trimester. Since 2007, when the law was passed, 138,000 safe and legal abortions have been performed.
Two other Mexican states, Guerrero and Michoacan, have taken recent steps to expand the legal grounds for abortion. At the end of 2014, Guerrero passed a new penal code that allows abortion when the woman faces serious health risks, and Michoacan included exceptions for fetal malformation and financial hardship.
Abortion access varies widely throughout the country due not only to legal barriers, but a variety of other obstacles such as conscientious objection by health providers, bureaucracy, stigma, financial restraints, and long distances. Although abortion in the case of rape is permitted in all of the country’s 31 states, out of 120 women who filed such cases between 2007—2012, only 39 were able to legally obtain abortions.
Some women take the medication misoprostol to terminate unwanted pregnancies on their own but if anything goes wrong they cannot go to the hospital because of fear of prosecution. And understandably—Mexico continues to imprison women for having illegal abortions. A study found that between April 1, 2007, and July 31, 2012, 127 women in 19 states of Mexico were put on trial for terminating their pregnancies.
Although expanded access to abortion should be applauded, especially in a region with some of the world’s most restrictive laws, permitting abortion under a limited set of exceptions will not help the vast majority of women who seek to make decisions about their own bodies and lives. This is an important first step but if the state of Tlaxcala is truly serious about women’s reproductive rights, it should consider legislation that accommodates the myriad other reasons women seek to terminate.