On the Decriminalization of Abortion
On April 23, after a tense and intense debate in all spheres of society, two-thirds vote of the Federal District’s legislature voted to decriminalize first-quarter abortions in Mexico’s capital,
thus giving women there the right to decide
whether to end their pregnancy. One woman with years of experience defending women’s rights shared her thoughts with envío following this historic decision.
María Guadalupe Morfín Otero
I’m a Mexican woman who’s not an activist in any political party. I have an education that’s largely humanistic: an undergraduate degree in law, a master’s degree in literature, a diploma in human rights and a year of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. I’ve held two public offices in my country, as president of the state Human Rights Commission in Jalisco and as the Federal District’s commissioner to prevent and eradicate violence against women in Ciudad Juárez. Although raised a Catholic, I have remained open to diverse beliefs in carrying out my public functions, including a lack of religious beliefs. It is based on this personal experience that I offer these reflections on the recent decriminalization of abortion in the Federal District.
A necessary separationI was born in the Jalisco region, which was the site of a religious war as recently as 1926-1929, when the Cristero War was sparked by anticlerical provisions in the Constitution. The war was particularly cruel in Jalisco and other neighboring states. It cost us a lot in this country to understand that the separation of church and state is necessary and healthy in the interest of establishing a secular society that allows a diverse population of believers and non-believers to come to essential agreements around issues of general interest without sacrificing basic freedoms. They are two spheres, two areas of action that should coexist in a spirit of mutual respect. This by no means implies disregarding the great responsibilities of those who exercise authority in each sphere. A good ruler can be a believer and be coherent with his or her faith, but must not use public office as a pulpit. These are two different things. A good bishop may not share the viewpoint behind a law, and nothing prevents him from expressing solidarity with the vulnerable people affected by it. He can continue to talk with those in power, bearing witness in accord with a faith that counts compassion among its essential principles, especially towards the poor and the fallen, and encouraging the cultivation of values that can bring about a reign of peace and justice within reach of all. The role of law is not to prohibit sins or impose virtues. It expresses accords that are valid for everyone in a republic of equals and thus contains the minimum consensus needed for social coexistence.
What should the state do?Mario Gutiérrez from the newspaper Mural in Guadalajara interviewed me on April 23, before abortion was decriminalized in Mexico’s capital. I want to share with envío some of the ideas I expressed in that interview, along with some other thoughts I’ve had since.
In response to the reporter’s question on how the state should intervene on the abortion issue given the country’s current situation, I replied that the state should ensure that there is absolutely no coercion against any women to force her to end her pregnancy. It should ensure that women who choose to give birth but aren’t living in adequate conditions receive government support in emplooyment, health care and education, and have a support infrastructure, including a place to live, daycare for their children and options for adoption.
The state should also ensure that the rights of women who choose to make use of the possible new law decriminalizing abortion are respected, while safeguarding their privacy. It should ensure widespread public education on sexual and reproductive rights and responsibilities, especially among adolescents and young people of both sexes in middle and high schools, both public and private. This would allow them to make decisions based on objective information with the support of advisers trained in the issue, know their options for avoiding unwanted pregnancy—which run from abstinence and other natural methods to the use of condoms and other birth control devices—and have access to the options most suitable for them.
To achieve all this, the topic of abortion has to come out of the sordid space to which some people have tried to confine it. A debate would be welcomed that helps move the dialogue forward so that those in favor of decriminalization and those against it can find each other and find ways to promote life, since neither of the two parties is “in favor” of abortion.
A step forward for rights?In response to the question of whether the decriminalization of abortion should be seen as a step forward on the path to women’s rights, I replied that it can help us recognize the extent of the problem, but doesn’t solve it in and of itself. It will help to record and count the ways in which abortions are taking place and their physical and psychological consequences. It will provide a starting point for designing preventive public policies in all areas of society. It will provide information for designing educational campaigns. This information will also be useful to the various churches and religious groups that do not have a single position on the topic and want to address it from their various pastoral perspectives in the most appropriate forums.
Dealing with this issue implies thinking seriously about creating another kind of state. It assumes a change in education, in the formation of people’s consciences. It also implies building a society in solidarity with the most vulnerable and a culture that will eradicate all forms of violence against women, especially those resulting in unwanted pregnancies or miscarriages because of physical abuse, as well as the violence implicit in thinking of women only as spouses, as mere receptacles for procreation, without their full consent.
Women take up the defense of life every day, when they defend the environment against speculators who deplete sources of water and food for themselves and their families. The defend life when they stay in their home towns while their partners emigrate north. They defend life when they march for peace or try to find peaceful means to resolve the conflicts between their children and violent neighbors in urban neighborhoods governed not by the rule of law but by the criminal trafficking of drugs, influence and arms.
No woman has an abortion because she wants to. When a woman decides to end a pregnancy, whether or not abortion is decriminalized, she does it with greater or lesser ease depending on whether or not she has resources. Those without resources have to do it clandestinely, dramatically alone, endangering their lives. This tragic option then cuts off other options, because it makes it hard for them to gain access to networks of public and private institutions that offer a range of support and could even help them avoid abortion.
We know what hurts usIn response to the question of whether people in my state avoid addressing the issue due to fear of losing votes—Jalisco is known as a conservative state—I replied that we can’t generalize. Silence can mean different things. Some people may avoid speaking about it to project an image that wins votes at the polls, but these votes aren’t so sure, since a politician who talks from his or her own conscience also builds confidence among voters. People form their own opinions, based in part on their experience with real, dramatic cases related to this and other issues. Women make up 53% of the Mexican population. We know what hurts us, and abortion hurts us very much. Some of us don’t believe that the solution lies in the criminal realm. Machismo and discrimination also hurt us. If anyone is pro-life in this country, it’s the army of women who feed their families every day with the money they have available, however little that may be. And for the vast majority, it is very little, painfully inadequate.
I also think there are public officials whose personal convictions lead them to believe that the topic should be avoided at all costs and they aren’t open to public discussion. Surely they’re not closed to dialogue among their closest associates, but we have to encourage them to participate in a public dialogue, in a pluralistic spirit. If they hold public posts, they should act not as tribunals of conscience, but as public servants in a constitutionally secular state, where people must legislate and govern based on a legal consensus achieved among people who think in different ways.
How to generate a healthy debateIn response to the question of how to generate debate and analysis in Jalisco, I gave a response that is valid in any country in Latin America: the help of professionals in the media is indispensable. Abortion is not an issue to be sensationalized, however much some people might want to treat it that way. It’s a topic that requires sensitivity, a capacity to listen to the people most affected—which are mainly though not exclusively women—and a minimum level of rationality in the debate. You can’t talk with people who start off by shouting “assassins” without realizing that we’re also pro-life. Women’s institutes, gender studies programs and university centers should play a decisive role in helping define the magnitude of the issues, their various angles, their complexity.
Hearing more of the stories that happen just around the corner can make us more aware. It would also help to compile, write up and publicize cases—protecting the sources to protect people’s identities—
in order to know more about how different women have resolved their problems, whether or not they turned to abortion.
We could thus learn about the thinking process they went through, what helped them through the dilemma and the various positions of the women they know and their spiritual advisers.
Avoiding debate?The reporter asked who gains by avoiding debate, and who find it convenient to do so? I replied that the winners are, first and foremost, those who profit from clandestinity. They also include people who are pleased with themselves for having avoided the topic and stand by doing nothing in response to the many other scenarios where life demands justice—to feed the hungry; to better share the blankets, the classroom seats and the hallways of power; to protect our forests and aquifers; to ensure enough food for the table, with protein for the body and sustenance for the soul; to protect the women and children who are victims of sexual exploitation networks. They include those who have always tried to ignore or hide the violence women suffer.
In response to the question of who should propose and promote this debate, I mentioned legislators, political parties, experts on the issue in public and private institutions, and civic organization members. Most important would be the participation of health workers who struggle to save the lives of women who have had botched abortions. Therapists who support people in grieving also have much to contribute.
I think it’s always better to get sensitive topics out of the realm of the sordid than to keep them hidden away. What’s difficult about the political moment we’re in, not only in Jalisco but in Mexico as a whole, is that there are already many fissures in the country that are barely beginning to heal. This topic requires people to listen to each other carefully, which hasn’t been the case, so they can reach minimal accords, get beyond a criminal agenda and create an infrastructure to support women with unwanted pregnancies.
The threat of excommunicationenvío asked me two other questions. The first was, how do you assess the debate and the controversy that preceded the decriminalization of abortion?
The political moment, fraught with post-electoral tension, was not the most propitious, although it was important to address the issue with little delay because of its serious public health consequences. Besides this, there’s virtually no willingness to dialogue between those in favor and those opposed. Both sides ended up sharpening their swords instead of building bridges to create a shared agenda around effective prevention actions to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Nonetheless, this fortunately seems to be beginning to happen now, after the vote.
It seems to me that the churches have a role to play in their respective forums—their homilies, confessionals, assemblies, pastoral action and editorial work—to create awareness, provide guidance and help people develop a sense of responsibility. But in this case they stooped to an offensive belligerence, or at least that was the case among a sector of the Catholic Church. The Office of the Archbishop of Guadalajara, which is the capital of Jalisco, went so far as to publish an editorial that used offensive language about people on the Left—in Mexico there are three parties that could be called leftist—and has been sharply criticized by a number of commentators, including a widely respected one who served for years as the head of the federal election office in Jalisco. In other regions, including the Federal District, some Church leaders raised the threat of excommunication, without noting that provisions in the Code of Canon Law bar use of this sanction against people involved in an abortion because of their vulnerability.
I say “a sector of the Catholic Church” because there were also editorials signed by priests in various print media arguing that what is most needed in these cases is compassion for women facing this drama. They noted the uselessness of a law prohibiting abortions that, although unenforced, still feeds a dangerous clandestine practice. They also argued that effective preventive actions are more useful than criminal sanctions.
Is society ready?envío’s second question was, who won and who lost? Knowing the prevailing machismo, women’s fears and the pressure of the Church hierarchy, who do you think will be able to benefit from decriminalization? How do you believe doctors and other health workers will respond? Is society prepared for decriminalization?
The post-legislative period won’t be easy. It already isn’t. Machismo requires efforts from society and the government not only to counter it but also to make it socially unattractive. On another score, there’s a difference between the health institutions run by the Federal District government and the federal institutions that serve the same Federal District’s population on the issue of whether or not they’re obliged to provide abortions. Federal and local health services coexist. A doctor may object on grounds of conscience so long as he or she is not the only doctor in the place who can treat a woman in need of urgent attention, because in this case the doctor’s objection would deprive the woman of her right to make use of the new provision in the law.
Since the law is valid only for the Federal District, it’s very unlikely that this will happen at this point, since there are always several doctors in its public hospitals. But what will happen if abortion is decriminalized in regions with isolated towns, where only one doctor is available? Will this objection be used to discriminate against the poorest women? This is precisely what decriminalization proposes to prevent: it aims to prevent the death of women who, given the prohibition against abortion in safe conditions, had no other choice but to use unhygienic or unsafe methods that endanger their lives.
One of the good things that has come out of this very painful process to decriminalize abortion in the nation’s capital is that all health centers and hospitals in the Federal District will now have counseling services for women who want them. It is through such services that support networks can operate, so that a clandestine abortion is no longer the only option. These services also help women who choose to terminate their pregnancy cope with their grief.
I don’t know if society is prepared to deal openly with something we’re already dealing with clandesinely. What we should prepare ourselves to do is avoid unwanted pregnancies. And this requires living in a just society, developing people’s awareness, guaranteeing women a safe life, weaving networks of solidarity. This is a topic that touches us at our very roots and that I hope will be taken up not through criminal sanctions, but rather by educating ourselves and others.
Truly “pro-life”?It is now time to take the steps as a society, beyond our polarizing positions, to see if we are truly coherent in defending life, wherever it is threatened: in prisons, in the organized crime networks permeating our societies, in the subhuman work in the maquilas or the field, in the bloody migration North that leads to crosses in the desert, in violence against women at home and in public places, in violence against children who live in the streets, in young people addicted to drugs, in sex workers exposed to sexual violence, in the treatment of the elderly. We must show that we are “pro-life,” that we defend life, in all of these places.