MEXICO CITY — Mexico's Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to abortion-rights legislation on Thursday in a decision likely to reverberate across the rest of largely Roman Catholic Latin America.
By a vote of 8 to 3, the high court ruled that the measure passed last year by the
Mexico City legislature, which allowed legal abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, didn't violate Mexico's constitution or any international agreements.
"This made history in Mexico and the rest of the region," said Dr. Raffaela Schiavon, executive director in Mexico for Ipas, an organization in Chapel Hill, N.C., that promotes reproductive rights.
The eight judges made clear in oral presentations earlier this week that a woman's rights were a higher priority than the rights of an unborn child. The judges steered clear of a ruling on when human life begins, arguing it's not a legal concept.
"Girls have a right to not be mothers," argued Justice Genaro Gongora Pimentel, when he outlined his decision on Tuesday. "Criminalizing abortion discriminates against women, and it has never been proven that the product of conception is protected (by the constitution)."
Three justices voted to overturn the Mexico City measure, arguing that unborn children should be granted a right to life from the moment of conception. That view had been strongly supported by Mexico's federal government, run by the conservative National Action Party, or PAN.
Mexico's high-court decision involved a law passed last year that applies only for Mexico City. Nonetheless, the case was closely watched across Latin America, where Roman Catholic Church officials have fought hard to prevent liberalization of abortion rights. Abortion is currently only legal in Guyana and Cuba.
Since May 2007, 12 designated public hospitals in Mexico City have performed more than 12,000 free abortions, a total of about 35 to 40 procedures each day. Most involve poor women and almost 40 percent of these women said they had too many children and couldn't afford another.
Church officials openly lobbied against the law last year, often criticizing Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who has openly declared his presidential ambitions. On Thursday, the Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico City issued a statement decrying that "the law makes legal what could never be moral" and called for prayer and ringing of church bells to ask forgiveness "for the indiscriminate murder of infants."
Ebrard said Thursday that the court had raised its prestige and that its decision reflected "a triumph of reason."
Illegal abortions have long been prevalent in Mexico, with academic experts estimating that between 500,000 to 1 million occur annually. It's long been an open secret that poor women turned to clandestine, often dangerous abortions while wealthier women had them done in private hospitals.
The Mexican Attorney General's Office and the National Commission on Human Rights challenged the Mexico City law immediately after its April 2007 approval by the Federal District's legislative assembly, controlled by Ebrard's left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD.
However, the majority of justices held Thursday that Mexico's constitution was silent on whether life begins at conception and made no mention of protecting the unborn. They held that international treaties don't prohibit Mexico from allowing abortion rights.
Now that Mexico City's law survived the constitutional challenge, other Mexican states may copy it. And last month, leaders of women's-rights groups from across Latin America were in Mexico City to study the law's implementation.
They were studying details like the creation of manuals and protocols for doctors. That's important because in some Latin countries such as Peru, abortion is allowed when the fetus has no chance of survival. Yet doctors, lacking an example, still refuse to perform these abortions.
"The big problem in these countries is that while the law is on paper, many times there aren't the rules in place that would tell public health officials what to do," said Lilian Sepulveda, legal adviser for Latin America at the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights. "There's that gap between what's on paper and the reality women are living on a day-to-day basis."
The center hailed Mexico's court action.
"It's historic and it's a trend we're seeing in the region," Sepulveda said.
(Bussey reports for The Miami Herald. Hall reported from Washington. Special correspondent Margarita Moreno contributed to this article from Mexico.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY