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Long-simmering debate on abortion heats up in Mexico

MEXICO CITY—Mexico once again is debating whether to legalize abortion, though for Daphne, 22 and a law student, the outcome won't make any difference: She's already finalized her plans to terminate her pregnancy. She's found the right clinic and is going ahead with the support of her middle-class family.

"I don't know why they debate so much if it is done anyway. Gynecologists will do it just about anywhere," said Daphne, who asked that she not be identified by her surname.

Abortion has long been a perennial issue in this country of 107 million, where most Mexicans at least nominally consider themselves Roman Catholic, but for the first time the political landscape favors advocates of abortion rights.

A measure that would decriminalize abortion in Mexico City, where about 9 million Mexicans live, is before the city's legislative assembly and appears to have a good chance of passage because the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, enjoys a majority.

The party has introduced a similar decriminalization measure in Mexico's Congress, but there it faces an uncertain future because the ruling conservative National Action Party, or PAN, enjoys a slim majority.

The debate over abortion reflects the deep political divide that remains after the PAN's Felipe Calderon won July's presidential election by less than 300,000 votes nationwide.

Calderon's PAN has long had a close relationship with the Roman Catholic Church—Calderon's father, a party founder, faced discrimination because of his religious beliefs. Calderon dodged the abortion issue during the presidential campaign, but now argues against any changes to Mexico's abortion laws, which allow the procedure only in cases of rape, incest or if the woman's life is in danger.

"I have a personal conviction, and I am in defense of life ... and, within this, I believe the existing legislation is adequate," Calderon said last week.

On the other side is the PRD, which narrowly lost the presidential contest but is pushing the abortion measure as an extension of its presidential campaign pledge to put the poor first. Marcelo Ebrard, the recently elected mayor of Mexico City and a member of the PRD, argues that the poor relies on homemade remedies and unlicensed practitioners while the rich and middle class enjoy abortion on demand.

The sanctity of life is a main tenet of Roman Catholic theology, and Mexico's church leaders are launching a fierce fight against the measure in Mexico City. Church leaders are ignoring a constitutional ban on involvement in politics that dates to the founding of the modern republic after the Mexico Revolution of 1917.

In an unusual statement on Friday, the Archdiocese of Mexico praised Calderon and accused PRD leaders of "weak thinking" that "once again puts in evidence, one more time, the authoritarian and fascist face of the Party of the Democratic Revolution."

The church has urged anti-abortion protests outside the city legislature, and the Vatican has dispatched officials to Mexico City.

Despite the heated debate, the reality is that abortion is readily available here. How it's performed varies by social status.

For the poor masses in and around Mexico's capital, few can drum up the $700 it costs for an abortion in a clinic. Many instead resort to taking Cytotec, an ulcer medication by Pfizer that can induce a miscarriage. Pfizer warns against its use by pregnant women, and it's supposed to be given only with a prescription. But McClatchy Newspapers found it widely for sale without prescriptions in Mexican pharmacies, where it costs about $150 to $190 for 28 200 mg tablets, about double the going rate in the United States.

With tears in her eyes, Marta, a maid, told how she borrowed money to purchase the tablets to end her daughter's second pregnancy. The 17-year-old girl already struggled to care for one baby.

"We just couldn't afford another child. I feel so terrible about this," she said, sobbing and showing the tablets that cost her $15 each—the equivalent of three days' salary for Mexico's lowest-paid workers.

In La Prensa, a splashy tabloid newspaper favored by Mexico's working class, abortion clinics advertise openly. "Unexpected Pregnancy?" reads the headline of one. "There's a solution to your pregnancy!"

The ad guarantees that "we won't leave you sterile and we won't perforate the uterus."

For wealthier Mexicans, posh clinics even bill insurance companies for abortions, using language that suggests complications in the pregnancy. That includes spontaneous abortion; ectopic, or tubal, pregnancy; amniotic crisis; and various other code phrases that would legally justify an abortion.

"Whether it's approved or not, the women who have this need will do this," said Jose, a gynecologist who agreed to discuss abortion on the condition that his last name not be divulged.

Supporters of Mexico's current law say the ease with which women can obtain abortions argues for tougher enforcement, not a change in the law.

"This is a national problem when people laugh at the law," said Alfredo Moran Moguel, a lawyer for the Mexican Inter-Ecclesiastic Forum, which represents several religious groups opposed to abortion. "The authorities should be there to enforce the law, not to see it violated."

The frequency of abortion, Moran said, is because women make "mistakes" and "errors" and act with a "lack of caution with respect to her own dignity, integrity in the use of her liberty."

Such arguments outrage Daphne, who said Mexico's abortion restrictions remain "because it's men, not women, making the laws, and older men."

Daphne came to her decision to abort "after the worst two weeks of my life," she said. She decided she couldn't adequately provide for a child and wasn't mature enough to raise one. She was unwilling to carry the child and give it up for adoption.

"If I look at things coldly, I won't ever forget it and I won't tell it to anyone," she said. "I am not the only one, nor am I the last one."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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