MEXICO CITY—Mexico City's liberal legislative assembly passed a controversial law Tuesday night legalizing abortion during a woman's first 12 weeks of pregnancy, placing the Mexican capital among Cuba and Guyana as the only Latin American and Caribbean locations with unrestricted access to the procedure.
The vote, after a day of fiery debate, was praised by supporters of abortion rights and denounced by their opponents.
The vote will dramatically alter the landscape of abortion in Mexico, where most of the 107 million population claims to be Roman Catholic. Mexico City has 8 million people, but its surrounding region contains 21 million more, and opponents warned that Mexicans from throughout the country could avail themselves of Mexico City's new legislation.
"It's a huge victory," said Dr. Raffaela Schiavon, the executive director of the women's health advocacy group Ipas Mexico. "It could start a chain of similar initiatives in other Mexican states and be an example for other countries."
The passage also signifies a victory for the country's liberal Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which last year lost a narrow, bitterly contested presidential election to the conservative National Action Party (PAN).
Political analyst Armand Peschard-Sverdrup says the legislation's passage will help the left-leaning PRD solidify its appeal.
"They're catering to their base," said Peschard-Sverdrup, the director of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies' Mexico Project. "It's a natural outcome of the election."
The debate over the bill has roiled Mexico for weeks, pitting conservative leaders and the country's Roman Catholic Church, with help from the Vatican, against abortion-rights advocates.
During the seven-hour debate, PAN assembly lawmakers had tried to delay the bill. It passed 46-19, with one lawmaker abstaining.
PAN leaders argued that the 12-week cut-off for abortions was "arbitrary" and ill-defined.
"It's lamentable that the elected leaders of the capital did not listen to the issues we raised on the assembly floor," PAN city lawmaker Antonio Zepeda told CNN minutes after the vote.
Supporters of the bill say it will protect the lives of thousands of women who already undergo risky illegal abortion procedures.
"It's going to make an enormous difference in the lives of Mexican women," said Lilian Sepulveda, the Latin American legal adviser for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights. "So instead of back alleys, women will be able to go to the doctor's office to get the health services they need."
But the bill had brought fierce opposition from the church, which publicly blasted the PRD.
In recent weeks, church leaders collected signatures and called for a nationwide referendum. They organized protests and rallies and were buoyed last week by a letter from Pope Benedict XVI, who called the proposed law a "grave threat" to unborn children.
Their fierce opposition came despite a ban on political activity by religious groups.
The PRD responded with its own letter to the Vatican, protesting the pope's involvement.
President Felipe Calderon, of the PAN, has opposed the bill, and the party has said it will ask the Mexican Supreme Court to review the law.
Abortion in Mexico was already legal in cases of incest, rape or if a woman's life is in danger. The procedure would remain illegal if done after 13 weeks.
Mexico City officials estimate that at least 20,000 Mexican women undergo illegal abortions each year, with at least 1,500 dying from complications.
Opponents fear women from across the country will stream to Mexico City for the low-cost procedure.
On Tuesday, spirited but civil public demonstrations continued under the watchful eye of Mexico City police.
At a park under a monument to former President Benito Juarez, several blocks from the assembly, demonstrations were well planned.
Supporters waving yellow PRD flags watched the assembly debate live on two big-screen televisions. A rock band played and sang pro-choice lyrics. Vendors hawked Fidel Castro posters and Ernesto "Che" Guevara key chains.
"There are women dying because of illegal abortions. We have to be responsible because these illegal abortions are already there," said activist Manuel Amador, 31.
Hundreds of mostly bored police officers, some in riot gear, blocked off the streets near the assembly building. Hundreds of demonstrators from both sides squeezed into a small cobblestone intersection at Tacuba and Bolivar streets.
There were a few shouting matches, but no fights.
Passions nevertheless ran high. Anti-abortion activists staged a mock funeral procession carrying tiny caskets adorned with painted crosses and topped by three plastic pink roses.
"We think to defend life is to defend civilization," said Vinicio Cruz, a student who handed out prayer leaflets adorned with images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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