Abortion has been a simmering issue in Mexico ever since a quest for broader women's rights began butting up against a traditionally male-dominated society.
But earlier this year when a 14-year-old rape victim, Paulina del Carmen, was denied the abortion she thought she had a right to in Mexicali, she - and then her son - put human faces on the theme. The simmer heated up to a boil.
People were already questioning the direction Mexican society would take following the July 2 election of social conservative Vicente Fox. Now, abortion has emerged as a surprise summer litmus test of where the new government stands on women's rights.
With the Paulina case serving as a backdrop, the legislature of the state of Guanajuato voted earlier this month to amend state law to criminalize abortion, even in the case of rape. Under Mexican law, states have exempted cases of rape and danger to a mother's life from a prevailing abortion ban.
The Aug. 3 vote in Guanajuato, a west-central state known for shoemaking and colonial churches, might not have caused such a national uproar if it weren't for two salient points. Guanajuato is where president-elect Mr. Fox served as governor in the 1990s. And it was legislators from Fox's center-right, Catholic-leaning National Action Party (PAN), who pushed for the new law.
Some of Fox's opponents are warning that Guanajuato may set a precedent for what the president-elect, a strong abortion foe, has in mind for the whole country. The PAN, considered an opposition party until Fox's July victory, has traditionally been an ally of the Roman Catholic Church. So now with the church making its support of the Guanajuato initiative very public, Fox's detractors are hoisting the case as the first sign of an attack on the secular state.
Some observers say the abortion controversy has taken such a hold on the country because Mexicans see it as a way to answer the question of whether Fox's election portends a conservative turn for Mexico. "This [abortion controversy] has become something of a thermometer," says Martha Prez, a member of Mexico City's Free Vote Defense Council. "People see it helping determine if Fox's victory was a vote for change, or a vote for conservatism."
Mexicans not cut from Fox's ideological cloth, but who voted for him hoping for change, "may now be regretting they did so," says Jos Luis Barbosa, leader of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Guanajuato.
The PRD's national president, Amalia Garca, says the Guanajuato vote reflects how the PAN has traditionally infringed on women's rights. Using the controversy to make its own point, the PRD government of Mexico City last week proposed several amendments to city laws to widen abortion rights.
In the heat of the controversy, Fox called the Guanajuato vote "strictly a local matter" and insisted that a similar initiative at the national level would not be coming from his government. Questioned during a Thursday visit in So Paulo, Brazil, Fox assured the press: "I don't agree with what happened in Guanajuato. My position is very different."
But women's-rights activists are suspicious, especially since the Fox transition team on public health included until recently the secretary of health for Baja California - the state where authorities denied rape-victim Paulina the abortion that state law supposedly guaranteed her.
The Guanajuato affair "puts pressure on Fox to define where he wants to go, but his few words on it still leave us with a question mark," says Ms. Prez. "We have to wonder if he heard the vote for what it really was - a vote for change -" and not social "regression."
Paulina's case is what got the Guanajuato legislature moving. The adolescent from the northern border city of Mexicali was 13 when she was raped last year by an intruder into her home. When she became pregnant, she decided she wanted an abortion, and her mother, Mara Elena Jacinto Rauz, supported her decision. But even though the laws of Baja California allow for abortion in the case of rape, state health authorities - including health secretary Carlos Astorga Othn - pressured Paulina to change her decision, then ultimately denied her the procedure.
Mr. Astorga says state citizens have a right to life, but no right to an abortion.
As Paulina continued to push for an abortion, her case became a national cause clbre, putting abortion back in the limelight. Mexicans were reminded that even though the practice remains illegal, at least several-hundred-thousand abortions - some experts estimate more than 1 million - are performed in Mexico every year. And because so many of those are clandestine and dangerous, abortion remains the fourth-highest cause of death among Mexican women.
Mexicans also learned that not all states have equal abortion legislation. Until the Guanajuato vote, all states allowed for abortions in cases of rape. The northern border state of Chihuahua guarantees a right to life beginning at conception - a state constitutional reform approved in 1993 during a PAN government. The state of Yucatn allows a mother who already has three children to seek an abortion for subsequent pregnancies if she is unable to support additional children.
When Paulina finally gave birth in April, all Mexico knew she had a boy.
Yet while Paulina's case prompted the Guanajuato PAN legislators to take action - and even though many observers believe it was Fox's victory that emboldened the PANistas to tighten abortion laws - there are also signs the PAN does not want a national confrontation.
With even some of the PAN's national leaders calling the Guanajuato legislation a "step backward," amendments to the law - which doesn't even take effect until October - are being considered. One reform would be guaranteeing a rape victim access to adoption services.
But such changes are being called cosmetic by many critics. Appearing on national television last week, Paulina said she still supports the right of rape victims to an abortion. Although she said she now feels "love like the love of a sister" for her son, she does not think any girl or woman should be forced to live the consequences of a man's crime.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society