MEXICO – Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation ruling sets the scene for national decriminalisation of abortion

Top photo: Supreme Court Minister Margarita Ríos-Farjat

In an historic ruling on 7 September, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN) of Mexico declared unconstitutional the criminalisation of women who have an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy and recognised their right to decide. Unanimously, in plenary, they invalidated Article 196 of the Penal Code of the state of Coahuila that imposed from one to three years in prison “to the woman who voluntarily performs her abortion or to the person who causes her to have an abortion with her consent”.

The Supreme Court’s decision invalidates only the penal code on abortion of Coahuila, but it also sets a mandatory precedent for all of Mexico’s states, whose courts must rule in favour of decriminalisation if a case is brought before them challenging the criminalisation of abortion in that state.

Abortion was already decriminalised in four of the 32 states of Mexico: starting in Mexico City in 2007, then in Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Veracruz, and now Coahuila. The rest of the states legislated to decriminalise abortion in cases of rape and some added other grounds such as the risk to the life or health of the pregnant woman or fetal malformation. But in practice, these caveats are not always taken into account and thousands of women have unsafe abortions that sometimes end their lives or they are taken bleeding to hospital and subjected to medical humiliation.

“The power of the criminal law to punish those who voluntarily interrupt their pregnancy is not a power that should be available to the legislator, since human rights are at stake,” said Minister Margarita Ríos-Farjat, who is the third woman given a seat on the Supreme Court in January 2020 for 15 years.

The ruling has been described as “historic” because it is the first time that the Supreme Court of Mexico “puts the right to decide at the center of the discussion”, according to Minister Aguilar. “The State must not only abstain absolutely from criminalising abortion, where the right of women or pregnant women to decide on their own body is restricted, but it must also guarantee minimum conditions for this to be possible,” added Minister Norma Piña.

Despite the support for the outcome and the concept of the “right to decide”, the ministers disagreed on whether the ruling should put an upper limit on the time of pregnancy. Some of the ministers argued that the “right to decide” was not “unlimited”, while the president of the Supreme Court, Arturo Zaldívar, regretted that the bill “fell short”, since he thought it should invalidate all the articles that criminalise abortion under any circumstances, and has been arguing for this for ten years.

The Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (GIRE) described the decision as historic. The ruling is being hailed across Mexico as an incredibly important step forward! We look forward to the abortion rights movement in Mexico taking more cases to court in other states over the coming months to extend women’s rights in all 32 states.

SOURCES: El Sol de Mexico, 6 January 2020 + PHOTO ; salud con lupa, 7 September 2021