The recent law amendment submitted by state representative Bobby Franklin in Georgia which seeks to introduce a law creating “prenatal murder” which proposes to criminalise any “human involvement” in a miscarriage or abortion, and make it carry a penalty of life in prison or death has caused much comment in the US and UK. Feminists in both countries (and I imagine further afield as well) have united in their condemnation of such legislation (see here and here). Their rage is justified and necessary in my opinion. However, reading their twits, comments and blogs from my computer in Mexico I feel like entering I am entering another world. I hope I can argue that legislation of the kind proposed in Franklin is unlikely to make it to the statute books, not least because it is ill-thought out and unenforceable. In Mexico however, this type of legislation is already in existence. As I pointed out in my first blog post back in September, abortion is a hot topic here due to the reforms that have been undertaken in Mexico City, which introduced the legalisation of abortion during the first twelve weeks of gestation in 2007. Shortly after the measure became law, the President’s Office, the PGR and most depressingly of all, the National Commission for Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos), initiated proceedings in the Supreme Court of Justice (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, or SCJN) with the hope of having it declared unconstitutional on the grounds that (amongst other things) it was a violation of the unborn foetus’ life. Last year, the SCJN presented its verdict, rejecting all the petitions. It affirmed that life was not defined as starting at conception in the Federal Constitution and upheld the constitutional right of the DF government to legislate on such matters as abortion.
The most obvious consequence of the controversy has been the move by conservative groups in the rest of Mexico’s states to push for the reform of their individual constitutions to ensure that the articles which refer to the inhabitants right to life and/or the duty of the state to ensure that this right is protected, explicitly define life as beginning at conception. The objective is to ensure that laws such as that passed in DF are clearly unconstitutional in their states. So far, 18 of Mexico’s federal entities (comprising of 31 states and DF) have approved such reforms, including my home state of Tamaulipas (in December 2010). At the federal level, in 2009 the then governor of Veracruz state, Fidel Herrera submitted a proposed amendment to the constitution in-line with those already enacted in the states (“El derecho a la vida será garantizado por el Estado desde el momento de la concepción. La ley establecerá los casos de excepción a la protección de la vida del no nacido.” “The State will guarantee the right to life from the moment of conception. The circumstances in which the unborn [foetus] will not enjoy this right shall be defined by a separate law.”) This giving of rights to an unborn foetus means, just as in Frankin’s proposed reform, that an abortion is classed as murder; specifically, what the penal code determines as “murder by a relative” (homicidio por razón de parentesco). Sadly, this reform seems to confirm the already widespread practise in Mexico of prosecuting women suspected o abortion for murder, as this allows them to be given much longer custodial sentences.
A positive outcome of the reformist zeal against women who wish to end their pregnancies, has been the publicity awarded to the cases where women have already been prosecuted or are on remand for this act. As I reported in my aforementioned blog post in September, in Guanajuato six women were found to be serving prison sentences after having been accused of procuring an abortion. The women had not been sentenced for this “crime”, but rather for “murder by a relative.” Their sentences had been received long before the constitutional reforms and appear to show, as I mentioned previously, that it was already common practise to punish women for ending their pregnancy in this way. They were sentenced to up to of 20 years imprisonment. Another 30 women were facing similar charges. More distressingly still, it also emerged that four of these women had not actually had an abortion, but rather had suffered spontaneous miscarriages, which due to family circumstances, poverty and/or lack of education, they had tried to conceal. Once their condition had forced them to seek medical attention, one of the people treating them (doctor, nurse or social worker) had then made the accusation with the relevant authorities [see here and here]. The women were subsequently unable to neither defend themselves personally against such charges nor pay someone competent to do it for them. Some of the women involved have been in prison for eight years [see here and here]. All of them came from the most deprived regions of the state. As a result of the publicity, relentless campaigning by prochoice groups in Guanajuato and the help of lawyers from a Mexico City law school (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas or CIDE), the State Congress of Guanajuato passed a measure which reduces the sentence facing these women and should result in their immediate release. However, this does not mean that the women were declared innocent, nor has the law been modified to prevent prosecutions of this nature occurring in the future.
Unfortunately, in other states numerous women are still in jail for voluntarily and involuntarily ending their pregnancies. This is the case of Baja California, another state where, like Guanajuato, the conservative Partido de Acción Nacional (National Action Party or PAN) is a considerable political force. Here there are at least 14 women currently in prison on remand charged with “murder by relative”; all of whose pregnancies ended before gestation was complete. I put it this way because, just as in the case of Guanajuato, this number includes at least one woman who insists that she suffered a miscarriage. This woman, who was still at school when the alleged event took place, was finally sentenced on 20 January to a 23 year custodial sentence after having passed two years already in detention without bail. She is currently appealing this sentence on the grounds that the prosecution were unable to prove intentionality. The other accused face similar sentences and have also all been refused bail.
In response to this, various feminist organizations in Baja California are campaigning for the release of all these women. Leading the campaign is Marixtel Calderón Vargas, member of the Red Iberoamericana Pro Derechos Humanos (Ibero American Network for Human Rights) with the help of the Federación de Mujeres Universitarias (Federation of University Women), Coordinación Nacional de Mujeres por un Milenio Feminista de Baja California (National Coordination for a Feminist Millennium in Baja California), and the Comisión Ciudadana de Derechos Humanos del Noroeste (Citizens’ Committee for Human Rights in the North-West). You can find their blog page here. Obviously the page is in Spanish, however there is a window (in English) on the right hand side about halfway down which invites to you to sign the declaration in favour of the release of the women prisoners that these groups are going to present on Tuesday to the Governor of Baja California and the State Congress. Please sign and help these women.