By Gabriella Borter
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - In a sweeping decision that would have once seemed almost impossible in this Catholic country, where women were jailed for ending pregnancies, Mexico's Supreme Court this week declared it unconstitutional for the federal government to criminalize abortion.
It was a huge victory for abortion rights advocates who have pushed for such a comprehensive ruling since 2021, when Mexico's top Court first struck down a law criminalizing abortion in the northern state of Coahuila.
The ruling set a significant legal precedent and paved the way for the federal health system to begin providing abortion services and broaden access dramatically. At some point, that might even make Mexico an increasingly important destination for U.S. abortion-seekers fleeing more restrictive laws.
But Mexican abortion rights advocates say the ruling's promise of expanding abortion access will not become a reality overnight and could depend on the political and legislative will of the federal government.
Aside from safeguarding abortion patients and providers from prosecution, the ruling will have limited impact on access until the federal public health system starts providing abortion services. The federal system has, until now, only been legally obliged to do so in cases of rape or to preserve the mother's health.
Maria Antonieta Alcalde, Latin America and Caribbean director of reproductive rights organization IPAS, said the practical implementation of abortion services - via pill or surgery - should be a minimal lift for the national health ministry, which provides a full spectrum of healthcare services for the majority of the population.
"The point here is not capacity, the point here is political will," Alcalde said.
A spokesperson for the health ministry did not return a request for comment.
How quickly federal services begin could depend on who wears the presidential sash.
While current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has carefully avoided expressing his own views on abortion, both of the female candidates recently nominated to vie for his seat in the June 2024 election support abortion rights.
Claudia Sheinbaum, the former Mexico City mayor tapped to represent the ruling leftist National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), oversaw the repeal of gestational limits on abortions in rape cases in Mexico City in 2021.
Xochitl Galvez, the senator chosen to represent the main opposition coalition, has broken from her center-right party’s anti-abortion platform to support abortion rights.
As president, either candidate would be tasked with overseeing implementation of the court's ruling, including deciding the conditions for legal abortions and budgeting for reproductive health services.
"Their vision on abortion and their support to provide abortions, I think that will be critical," Alcalde said.
U.S. ABORTION-SEEKERS LOOK TO MEXICO
The decriminalization of abortion in Mexico follows a cascade of reproductive rights advancements in Latin America in recent years after a long period of strict bans. According to Mexico's Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE), the advocacy group that brought the case to the Supreme Court, 172 people in Mexico were imprisoned for illegal abortions from January 2010 to January 2020.
It also starkly contrasts with the elimination of rights in the United States.
Since the United States Supreme Court struck down the federal right to abortion in June 2022, U.S. abortion seekers have increasingly turned to Mexico, where a well-oiled machine of informal volunteer networks have provided abortion-inducing pills to residents for years.
Mexico’s court ruling this week could make it much easier to end a pregnancy anywhere in the country, through state-run clinics as well as informal operations, potentially making the country even more of an abortion destination for Americans.
"It opens more possibilities. They will have even more options in Mexico," said Veronica Cruz, the founder of Las Libres, a volunteer network based in the state of Guanajuato that saw an influx of U.S. women seeking abortion pills after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Now that Mexico's federal government is under court order to remove abortion from the federal penal code, abortion rights advocates expect the national congress will soon draft legislation to add abortion regulations to the federal health code.
Lawmakers will have to decide the conditions under which abortions will be legal in Mexico, including a gestational limit. Then, abortion rights advocates expect they will add a provision to the general health law, which would set regulations at state level as well.
Just 12 of 32 Mexican states have removed abortion from their local penal codes. But this kind of federal law, proactively legalizing abortion, would offer legal protection to abortion patients in all states.
Isabel Fulda, deputy director at GIRE, said it was hard to estimate a timeframe in which abortion would become universally accessible in Mexico, but the group stood ready to contest any federal resistance to provide services.
"In reality, implementation takes time," she said.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Josie Kao)