October 24, 2022
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How the feminists of Guerrero beat the odds to legalise abortion
By Ann Louise Deslandes
The state of Guerrero, in south-west Mexico, is known for the storied beaches of Acapulco, its plentiful resources including gold and silver, and rich produce such as coffee and mezcal. In recent years, it has also become emblematic of the country’s deepest social problems: poverty and inequality are widespread, and a booming drug trade is fiercely contested by armed criminal groups, often resulting in mass killings and repeated episodes of forced displacement. It was in Guerrero that 43 students from a rural teachers’ college were abducted and subsequently disappeared in 2014, in one of Mexico’s most notorious atrocities of the past decade.
Yet as of 2022, Guerrero is also known as something else: an abortion pioneer. In May, the state’s congress enacted a bill making abortion available up to 12 weeks, and Guerrero the 8th of Mexico’s 32 states to decriminalise the procedure.
As in many parts of Latin America, the campaign for abortion rights in Guerrero was led by feminist collectives.
“May 17 was a historic day for the women of Guerrero,” the feminist group Marea Verde Guerrero told the Impact newsletter in a collective response. “It means great progress for women in exercising their right to decide about
The victory in Guerrero is part of the wider marea verde (green wave) movement that has swept across Latin America, in which feminists have demanded, and won, expanded abortion rights and other gender justice measures. The wave has swelled in Mexico thanks to a 2021 supreme court decision that found criminalising abortion was unconstitutional – the diametric opposite of the Roe v Wade decision which has led to a vast rolling back of reproductive rights over the country’s northern border.
The 2021 ruling caused many of Mexico’s state governments to fall in line, including Baja California, Sinaloa and Baja California Sur, which became the ninth state to legalise abortion shortly after Guerrero this June.
Collage by Mythili Sampathkumar
It was perhaps unlikely for the wave to come so soon to Guerrero – a place where femicide and domestic violence are common, and conservative opposition to gender and LGBTQIA+ justice is strong.
The central diocese of Chilpancingo-Chilapa in the majority Catholic state has long been led by conservative clergy. When the current bishop, José de Jesús González Hernández, assumed his role in April, he wasted no time telling local media he would be continuing this tradition, and saying: “Man and woman meet and a new creature comes, why go against it if it is natural?”
But Guerrero had many compelling reasons to act on abortion.
Beatriz Mojica Morga, a state congresswoman representing Acapulco, said the supreme court ruling “helped us to move forward in this state,” but was just one factor in the campaign to decriminalise abortion.
She points outs the state has been subject to two “gender alerts”, issued by Mexico’s national commission on violence against women due to its high reported rates of rape, sexual abuse and femicide. The alerts require states to take action to protect women’s human rights, including reproductive rights.
Guerrero also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country – liberalising abortion laws has been found to decrease deaths in childbirth around the world.
In the months leading up to the vote in state congress, the debate was spurred on by the case of “María”, a nine-year-old girl from the Me’phaa Indigenous group, who was refused an abortion at a hospital in state capital Chilpancingo after she had been raped. María was eventually able to terminate the pregnancy at another hospital, but hers was one of many cases that galvanised the movement to change the law.
Penalties for women who were suspected of attempting abortions were also harsh: Adriana Manzanares, an Indigenous woman from the same region as María, spent five years in prison after she had a stillborn baby – her full sentence was 22 years.
It is no accident that these two cases involved Indigenous women. Across the country, Indigenous, Afro-Mexican and poor people have suffered the most under abortion restrictions, a fact the supreme court recognised in its decision.
In his argument for the September 2021 ruling, supreme court president Arturo Zaldívar wrote: “the criminalisation of abortion punishes the poorest women, the most marginalised, the forgotten and most discriminated against in the country. It’s a crime that in its nature punishes poverty.”
Legalising abortion alone will not end this inequality, feminist groups say. Guerrero-based Siempre Vivas del Sur used the occasion of International Safe Abortion Day on September 28 – a movement founded by Latin American feminists in 1990 – to launch a plan for legislators to tackle the “social decriminalisation” of abortion. At a press conference held outside congress, the activists demanded the state’s health law be reformed to establish a guarantee that those who decide to terminate their pregnancies receive “quality and humane medical attention”, with funding to match.
“The legalisation of abortion in Guerrero is not enough, because like many patriarchal cultures in the world, Guerrero’s culture has patterns of behaviour based on religious beliefs that make people think of abortion as synonymous with the sexual debauchery of women – only women – of sin,” said Ludivina Gallardo, a member of the collective.
Outside Guerrero, Mexico’s marea verde continues, with feminists campaigning in every state to remove abortion from criminal codes wherever it has appeared and thus realise the promise of many decades of community organising.
The next to fall is likely to be the northern state of Nuevo León, where feminist groups have filed a lawsuit demanding the state law be reformed to align with the supreme court ruling. This would not only be a breakthrough for the more than five million people who live in Nuevo León, but could also help millions more in neighbouring Texas, which enacted one of the strictest abortion bans in the United States after the fall of Roe v Wade.
In a dramatic reversal of regional fortunes, Mexico is fast becoming a site of legal respite for abortion in North America
— Ann Louise Deslandes is an independent writer, reporter and researcher in Mexico. Her newsletter, The Troubled Region, covers security, resources and infrastructure and reflects on the changing practice of foreign correspondence.
— Mythili Sampathkumar is an independent journalist based in New York.
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement and Anna Pujol-Mazzini.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
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