Gender Development Projects should Target the Whole Community (3-3)
‘The timely, thought-provoking essays of this book provide valuable evidence of the impact of different gender and faith perspectives on practical development issues while also highlighting the complexities and ambiguities of religious influences. Development workers, researchers and social activists will gain from these studies a greater awareness and more critical understanding of how different religious beliefs and practices, whether of Christianity, Buddhism or Islam in the Middle East, Asia, Africa or Latin America, can either be a potential barrier or alternatively a strong incentive for social change.’
The 2007 Mexico City decision to legalize abortion on demand within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy was the culmination of three decades of abortion advocacy by Mexico’s women’s and feminist movements.13 The modern abortion movement was kick-started in 1976, when members of the National Movement for Women launched the initiative for Free and Legal Abortion and organized the First National Conference on Abortion. Other initiatives to liberalize the country’s penal codes regarding abortion followed – some even supported by incumbent presidents. However, these were stymied by the formidable opposition of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the conservative National Action Party (PAN), which is closely allied to the Church.
By the 1990s, the movement for abortion reform gained momentum, garnering support not only from the women’s and feminist movements, but also from various different sectors of Mexico’s civil society, including prominent figures in the sciences and arts, such as Nobel-prize winner Octavio Paz Barraza.
With the 1999 election of Mexico City Mayor Rosario Robles, of the leftwing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the movement for abortion reform found a committed advocate who had political power and networks.
In 2000, Robles’ proposal to amend Mexico City’s penal code to provide access for abortion after rape, and to lower the penalties for criminal abortion, was approved by Mexico City’s Legislative Assembly. In a huge defeat for PAN and the Church, which appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Justice, the constitutionality of the penal reforms was upheld in 2002, and the Secretary of Health quickly followed this by establishing norms regulating legal abortion in Mexico City, where almost a quarter of Mexico’s total population lives.
In 2007, a collective of women’s organizations drafted a bill which they presented to Mexico City’s Legislative Assembly. The bill proposed decriminalizing all abortions up to 12 weeks of gestation; reducing the criminal sentences for abortions performed after 12 weeks; and modifying Mexico City’s health laws to ensure free abortion services, education about sexual health and rights, and programmes to prevent unwanted pregnancies.15 The bill was supported by different parts of society, including the science and medical community, and Mexico City’s Mayor and Minister of Health. It was approved by the Legislative Assembly on 24 April 2007.
The Mexico City law is striking for its comprehensiveness; it not only makes abortion legal, but also requires the government to provide family-planning services to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and makes sexual and reproductive health care a government priority.
A confluence of social, legal, and political conditions in Mexico City enabled passage of the bill. First, public opinion favoured legalizing abortion; second, the women’s movement and NGOs successfully positioned abortion as an issue of social justice and public health; third, trends in international discourse supported abortion as a human right of women; and fourth, the progressive composition of Mexico City’s legislature ensured passage of the bill. As in Colombia, positioning abortion as a secular issue was a key advocacy strategy, particularly because preservation of the secular state is a paramount concern for most Mexicans.
At the time of writing (February 2008), two suits have been filed with the federal Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the law; it is anticipated that these will be voted on sometime in 2008. Advocates in Mexico are cautiously optimistic that the Supreme Court will support the decision to legalize abortion.
The Road Ahead
Over the past three decades, despite inhospitable political, legal, and social climates, regional activists have chipped away at legal barriers to abortion in Latin America. Sometimes, there have been setbacks. The Nicaragua example is more than this – for many, it is a catastrophe, which highlights the enormous challenges facing abortion rights advocates in the region.
Yet in contrast, recent events in Colombia and Mexico City should hearten advocates for holistic approaches to women’s health and rights, who see abortion as central to their vision. It is encouraging that the Mexico City decision demonstrates that it is possible, given the right political and social climate, to legalize all abortions in the first trimester, and also gain government commitment to pay for these services as well as provide educational programmes designed to prevent unwanted pregnancies. The case of Colombia, on the other hand, demonstrates that even in contexts where abortion has been outlawed completely, it is possible to make the case for allowing exceptions to protect the health and life of the woman, based on international law.
A key message which emerges from the case studies is that work on reform of laws regulating abortion must begin by reclaiming the terms of the debate from the Catholic Church, which has so successfully dominated the discourse by linking abortion to morality and religion. As the experiences of Mexico City and Colombia show, framing abortion within the context of reproductive health and rights, and using international law to support these arguments, is an effective tool in countering religious-based opposition.
Advancing work on this front could help by, if not circumventing, at least reducing, the possibility of future setbacks on abortion reform, as in Nicaragua.
The case of Nicaragua also demonstrates that protecting even the most limited right to abortion is paramount.
Political will is certainly key in achieving progress on abortion, though I must be noted that leftist movements or parties are not de facto champions of the right to abortion. While the Democratic Party in the USA includes the right to abortion in its national platform, liberal parties and governments in Latin America do not. Avowed leftist presidents like Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay have publicly condemned abortion, citing Roman Catholic Church doctrine as the reason. Conversely, the conservative presidents of Mexico and Colombia, while not supporting abortion reforms in their countries, have also not impeded the legal process from going forward.
Lastly, the work of the women’s movement in advocating for abortion reform is indispensable to progress on the issue. As all the above examples bear out, this vocal and active constituency is responsible for keeping the issue to the fore, and for assisting women to understand and access their rights.
Below, some of the key points which emerge from the case studies are highlighted, to conclude the chapter.
By Ursula King Bristol University, 13/05/2012