MEXICO CITY — More than a year after abortion was decriminalized in this capital city, abortion opponents hope the Mexican Supreme Court will reverse the legislation in a decision that could reverberate across Mexico and Latin America.
Mexico's highest court heard public testimony in the spring, and is expected to rule as early as this month on the constitutionality of the local abortion measure.
The Federal District is governed by the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD. Through its control of the city assembly, the party in April 2007 legalized abortion in the city for women who are up to 12 weeks pregnant.
The measure is unusual because it legalizes abortion in the capital. Except in cases of rape or risks to the mother's life, abortion remains illegal in most of rest of this devoutly Roman Catholic nation.
States in Mexico set their own policies on abortion rights, and only Yucatan in Mexico's far south has allowed abortion in cases of extreme poverty. University studies estimate between 500,000 and 1 million abortions take place in Mexico annually, but most are of questionable legality.
The Catholic Church and anti-abortion activists want the high court to strike down the Mexico City measure. They argue that life begins at conception and carrying out an abortion amounts to a taking of life that violates Mexico's constitution.
"A person's life has such a great value that we cannot take it, we are not the owners," insists Ana Elena Cantu, a city legislator in the northern industrial city of Monterrey and an anti-abortion leader in Mexico.
But the 11 members of Mexico's high court may look beyond the constitutional question.
"It is not a philosophical debate. It is mostly about the criminality. Should you or should you not be penalizing it," said Miguel Sarre, a university law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, or ITAM.
In prior rulings, Mexico's high court declared abortion to be a crime but said it should not be penalized. That ruling mollified both sides, but such a broad decision is unlikely this time, Sarre said, partly because Mexico City is drawing women in from other parts of the nation for abortions.
Since May 2007, 12 participating public hospitals in Mexico City have performed more than 12,000 free abortions, and are averaging about 35 to 40 such procedures per day, according to the city's director of emergency medical services, Dr. Arturo Gaytan. Most of the women are poor, he said.
"There isn't a way to measure this. What was clandestine is now authorized. We don't know what the measure is outside these medical units," Gaytan said.
Women who could afford it traditionally went to private clinics for abortions that technically were illegal. Today, these clinics continue to perform the procedures, but women who visit them have more recourse.
"If something happens, your family or you have legal grounds to allege negligence," said Daphne, a 23-year-old law student who first spoke to McClatchy in March 2007 as she readied to have an abortion just weeks before it became legal.
Speaking again on condition that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, Daphne said she'd still choose a private clinic today for an abortion because "people are still afraid of the (public) institutions."
To combat that image of poor quality, city health officials point to the number of recorded deaths of mothers during the abortion process. In 2005, 15 women died during a reported abortion, eight in 2006, one in 2007 and none in 2008, Gaytan said.
"What this suggests is that procedures in clandestine areas have disappeared and given way to this," he said.
Of the now-decriminalized abortions at public hospitals, 39 percent involved women who already have children and cannot afford another. Students represented almost 27 percent of the women seeking abortion, while 20 percent were maids and domestic workers. In 58 percent of the cases, the women seeking an abortion had an intrauterine device (IUD) implanted to prevent another unwanted pregnancy.
Abortion-rights groups argue that the decriminalization of abortion amounts to social justice and can serve as an example for the rest of Latin America.
"It will be a model - at least in that it can show the way to other countries," said Ruben Ramirez Sanchez, head of Mexico operations for IPAS, a group based in Chapel Hill, N.C., that promotes reproductive rights in Latin America.
Abortion is illegal in most of the Americas except for Cuba and Guyana, but the practice is widespread. Women of means have the procedure done in a private clinic. But the poor often attempt to end pregnancies on their own, often with ulcer medications that frequently cause internal bleeding and even death.
"It's such an injustice, these poor women are punished in every sense of the word," said Maria Jose Oliveira de Araujo, who heads Brazil's National Network for Health and Reproductive Rights in Bahia.
Brazil has a left-leaning government in power, the Workers Party, but that hasn't resulted in eased restrictions on abortion. Evangelical lawmakers are growing in number and are allying with conservative Catholics to prevent any expansion of abortion rights in Brazil.
"The evangelists are getting more powerful," Araujo said.
In Brazil and Peru, women carrying babies with genetic disorders that mean zero chance of survival are routinely forced by the courts to carry to term. One case in Peru has landed at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica.
That's why details of Mexico City's implementation are so important to the rest of Latin America, said Peruvian Congresswoman Rosario Sasiesta.
"Our problem is there isn't a protocol so the doctors can implement this," said Sasiesta, who was in Mexico in July to evaluate how Mexico City's effort could translate into new procedures for Peru's state health network.