Mexico moves toward legalizing abortion - amid public uproar

Mexico's announcement that it plans to practically legalize abortion is generating considerable controversy here. The proposed legislation is part of a revision of the 1931 penal code, said Attorney General Sergio Garcia Ramirez. The abortion proposal is only one of the changes under consideration. Other proposals will affect divorce laws, the sentencing system, jails, and banking, among other things.

But it is the abortion section that is attracting the most attention here. And Mexicans have demonstrated throughout the nation in opposition to the plan. The Mexican Congress should vote on the legislation by the end of December.

Abortion remains an extremely controversial subject in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation. Even contraception remains taboo in many families.

Machismo is another factor. ''Children are a sign of virility'' for males, said Manuel Urbina, director of family planning at the health ministry. Ignorance and lack of access to medical care are other causes of unwanted pregnancies.

''Fifteen to 20 million Mexicans living in small, remote villages essentially do not have access to medical care,'' said Health Secretary Guillermo Soberon.

The government's national population council estimates that about 1 million women have abortions each year, but feminist organizations say the number is at least twice as high.

And according to a recent government-sponsored study, 1 of every 5 pregnancies ends in abortion and 14 of every 100 women who attempt to conduct abortions on their own die.

These statistics contrast with those in countries where abortion is legal. In the United States, for example, the death rate from abortion is 5 percent of every 100,000 women, according to the World Health Organization.

The new legislation is an attempt to change Mexico's dismal situation. Current law permits abortion only if the life of the mother is in danger or if the woman can prove she was raped.

Under the proposed revisions, the conditions for legal abortion would be widely expanded. Abortions would be legal if there were proof that the fetus was deformed, if birth control methods failed, or if ''economic hardship'' made it impossible for the couple to have another child.

Abortion would be illegal under the proposed law only if a pregnancy resulted from an adulterous relationship, or if one of the parents opposed the operation.

The legislation, however, appears to please neither conservatives nor liberals.

Some conservative newspaper columnists charge the proposal, if enacted, would lower moral standards. The Roman Catholic Church here has repeatedly denounced the legislation. ''The church will always side for life,'' said Bishop Alfredo Torres Romero, a church spokesman.

The conservative National Action Party (PAN), the most powerful opposition party, has introduced a bill in Congress in opposition to the proposal.

''We've introduced a bill to force the government to acknowledge that life starts at conception,'' said a PAN spokesman Gonzalo Altamirano Dimas. ''Abortion is still homicide.''

Leftist parties, in contrast, complain that the legislation is not sweeping enough and that it fails to legalize abortion fully. Feminist groups say it does not deal with realities and keeps women dependent on their partners' goodwill to obtain an abortion.

''In most cases, the revisions require the man's consent before an abortion can be performed,'' said feminist lawyer Graciela Alvarez of the Institute for Third World Political and Economic Studies. ''Women are still denied the right to decide alone whether they will become mothers.''

The new law is unrealistic, she added. ''There are more than 100,000 villages of less than 1,000 people in the nation who do not have access to medical care or contraceptives. Women in those villages should abort freely.''

Conscious of the explosive nature of the new legislation, the government has moved carefully, gathering opinions from private and public organizations.

''We won't act hastily, said Attorney General Garcia Ramirez when he publicized the proposal. ''We won't act and then present the people with an accomplished fact. First, we will ask, and we will listen, and only then will we suggest, propose, and regulate.''

Many Mexicans think that, despite the current uproar, the bill will be enacted into law.

''It will pass,'' said family lawyer Luis Alfonso Macias. ''The government is the majority in Congress. The popular consultations are informative, not consultative.

''The new code is a compromise. Technically, it does not legalize abortion, but practically, it will make it infinitely easier for Mexican women to get one.''

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