A Wake-Up Call

The Mexican Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a Mexico City abortion law may produce a backlash in other parts of the country.

An August 28 court decision to uphold legal abortion in Mexico City will have little effect in the rest of the country and will only serve to galvanize the Mexican pro-life movement, according to Mexican Catholic observers in the U.S.

Observers say the 8-3 decision of the Mexican Supreme Court, approving the constitutionality of an April 2007 bill legalizing abortion in the first 12 months of pregnancy, is unlikely to set a precedent in other states of Mexico—which are generally more conservative than the capital city—and will probably even stiffen the resolve of pro-life forces. The high court’s decision to uphold the law overrules an appeal by the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, which argued that health laws should not be decided by local assemblies.

Fr. Marco Bran Flores, a Jesuit priest from Mexico City who is in the U.S. pursuing a Ph.D at Loyola University Chicago, says political liberalism “belongs to the city character” of the capital and will not necessarily be cited as a legal precedent in other parts of the country. In fact, he says he expects to see a spirited backlash against the bill in other parts of the country.

“An urban area of 10 million people like Mexico City exhibits a very different cultural environment than Guadalajara, Monterrey or Puebla—the second, third, and fourth most populous cities,” says Father Bran Flores. “Mexico City’s liberal reputation is almost mythical throughout the country, and contrasts sharply with the conservatism of the other big cities. This law will not easily be copied in other parts of Mexico.”

According to statistics from the Federal District, more than 12,000 women have had abortions in Mexico City since the law took effect last April. At the time of the law’s passage, the BBC reported that there were an estimated 200,000 illegal abortions in Mexico each year. Outside of Puerto Rico and Cuba, Mexico City is now the largest place in Latin America where women can legally obtain abortions on demand during the first trimester of pregnancy. Pope Benedict XVI publicly condemned the bill when it became law.

Although the law can now theoretically be cited in the courtrooms of other Mexican cities, many observers like Father Bran Flores do not expect it to go very far in other states. One factor limiting the impact of the law is that Mexico remains more than 85 percent Catholic, with Church officials and many politicians—particularly members of Calderon’s National Action Party, who mounted a campaign against the bill—standing firm in their opposition to legal abortion.

Rather than imitating Mexico City’s law, pro-life activists expect Catholics throughout Mexico to dig in even more deeply against legal abortion.

Some of this resistance is already emerging from church offi cials. In a September 6 radio address, Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez of Guadalajara reaffirmed in sharp language the Catholic teaching that abortion is a sin. “Everyone must know that abortion continues to be an indescribable crime, a terrible murder, and God cannot help but exercise his judgment against those who have abortions, those who help them and those who legislate in favor of impunity,” the cardinal told his listeners, according to a September 13 report in the Guadalajara Reporter.

According to the same report, Archbishop Jose Martin Rabago reacted to the decision by threatening “to excommunicate any woman who obtains an abortion as well as doctors and politicians who support their decision.”

American Catholic observers say they are heartened by this reaction from Church leaders, which suggests the decision’s impact will not be as strong as some had initially expected.

“The first thing that came to my mind was that other states would follow this decision, but Mexico is a country of strong faith and values,” says Rosalind Villasenor , a Mexican-born lay minister who conducts abstinence retreats in the U.S. and Mexico. “I think this court decision in Mexico can become a wake-up call for citizens to protect and maintain the rights of all, including the unborn.” Marco Vinicio Cristerna, a seminarian studying in Chicago for the Oregon Province Jesuits, says last April’s law “has not made a huge impact” in his home state of Nuevo Leon and that “it is hard to guess the impact in other states, which can be much more conservative than Nuevo Leon.” Monterrey is the northeastern state’s capital city.

Cristerna, 30, says he was surprised by the court’s ruling.

“The decision of the Supreme Court is both extreme and unusual,” he says. “Some say we have failed as a society; others think the Supreme Court’s decision was a matter of justice. I think we have failed as a society. The overwhelming poverty in the country is an indicator of that failure.” Cristerna describes the law as a misguided attempt to solve the country’s social problems without proposing a viable socio-political alternative to the current system. “It is a palliative measure that will not really solve Mexico’s problems of poverty,” he says.

The reaction from U.S.-Mexican Catholics to the court’s decision contrasts with that of some Mexican pro-abortion activists, who expect the ruling to open the doors to legalized abortion throughout the rest of Latin America.

Maria Conseulo Mejia, director of Mexico’s Catholics for the Right to Decide, told The Christian Science Monitor on August 29 that “the case is very signifi – cant for the possibility of continuing this trend in other states in the republic.”

And Lilian Sepulveda, legal adviser for the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights, hailed the decision as “an incredible victory for women in Mexico and women across Latin America.”

Yet despite the early euphoria of abortion-rights activists, Mexican Catholics in the United States say such wide expectations of a narrow court ruling may be largely rhetorical, or at least blown out of proportion. The Supreme Court ruling merely states that the city’s legislation is constitutional, and makes no provision for wider legalization measures.

“I wouldn’t consider [the law] typical,” says Villasenor, whose organization El Verdadero Amor Espera trains young singles to lead abstinence retreats. “Mexico is known to be protective of its culture, faith and values. There can’t be anything more important [to Mexicans] than life.” Fr. Bran Flores, who spent his entire life in Mexico City before joining the Jesuits, says the Supreme Court’s ruling seems more like an exception than the rule in light of past decisions.

“We could say that most of the ethical issues decided by Mexico’s Court have adhered to traditional Catholic teaching,” he says. “On the other hand, it should not be astonishing that the court based its rationale on social justice argumentation, since almost half Mexico’s population live in poverty or extreme poverty.”

Many are still puzzled at how the new law made it this far. Even granting the liberalism of Mexico City, it seems difficult to believe that lawmakers and judges in such a Catholic country could promote legal abortion. What happened?

In order to understand the high court’s decision, Fr. Bran Flores says it is important to remember that Mexican Catholicism is often more ethnic and nationalistic than morally clear cut. While many Mexicans will crawl to an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on their knees, not all of them follow Church teachings, notes Fr. Flores.

“For instance, the Church’s teaching about contraception is clear, but in Mexico almost 40 million people live with less than $2 USD per day,” says Father Bran Flores. “Each married couple makes a private decision about family planning according to their social, economic and idiosyncratic conditions. I do not remember the statistics, but today most Mexican women take ‘pills’ for planning their families and still consider themselves Catholic.”

In such an environment, it may ultimately be impossible to predict what happens next.


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About Sean Salai, S.J. 7 Articles
Rev. Sean M. Salai, S.J., writes as a special contributor for America Media. He is a doctoral candidate in evangelization and media at The Catholic University of America, an author of multiple books on Pope Francis and Ignatian spirituality, and a former newspaper metro reporter.