– In a strong reaffirmation of one of the hemisphere's most lenient abortion laws, Mexico's Supreme Court on Thursday upheld legal abortion in the nation's capital.
"To affirm that there is an absolute constitutional protection of life in gestation would lead to the violation of the fundamental rights of women," said Justice Sergio Valls.
The controversial case has been watched closely by the rest of the country, and both critics and supporters of the Supreme Court decision say they believe it will push other states to liberalize their own abortion laws.
"The case is very significant for the possibility of continuing this trend in other states in the republic," says María Consuelo Mejía, the director of Mexico's Catholics for the Right to Decide. "The arguments and the way in which they defended women's rights is very important, very symbolic."
The law to legalize abortion in the nation's capital was passed by the left-leaning assembly of Mexico City last April. It allows doctors to terminate pregnancy in the first three months under any conditions, but physicians who are morally opposed abortion are not required to perform the procedure.
In the rest of Mexico, abortions in the first trimester are currently only permitted in certain cases, including rape or if the mother's life is in danger.
Since taking effect, some 12,000 women have terminated their pregnancies in public hospitals in Mexico City, according to city statistics. Twenty percent of them are residents from outside the capital.
Conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderón is not directly involved in the case. But his government, via the nation's attorney general's office and the National Human Rights ombudsman, challenged the Mexico City decision – saying that health laws should not be the domain of the local assembly.
The justices voted 8 to 3 to uphold the April ruling. To do so, eight of 11 justices would have needed to vote in favor of its unconstitutionality.
Antiabortion groups outraged
The law has sparked outcry in the second-largest Catholic country in the world.
"This is very grave for our country," says Jorge Serrano Limón, the head of Provida, an antiabortion group that has been protesting abortion outside public institutions this week. "We are creating a culture of death. We have failed as a society."
Mexico City's law is one of the most liberal laws in Latin America, putting it in line with Cuba and Guyana, the only countries in the region that currently allow abortion for all reasons in the first trimester, as the US allows. Nicaragua voted in November 2006 to ban abortion in all cases. El Salvador and Chile also have some of the region's most restrictive policies.
The Archbishop of Mexico City, Cardinal Norberto Rivera, said in a sermon last Sunday that the nation's push to stem murder at the hands of kidnappers and drug cartels is a contradiction if it also supports abortion.
"To me it is a contradiction to sign an accord against violence with great fanfare while at the same time we are threatened with the violence against the most innocent, those in the wombs of their mothers, being declared constitutional," he said, according to According to Catholic News Agency.
Since the law has been passed, at least two states have been looking to make abortion more restrictive, such as taking away that right in the case of rape, says Ms. Mejía.
Other states could follow suit
But Mr. Serrano Limón says that other states will move to mirror Mexico City. "This is going to promote abortion in other states. Instead of 12,000 deaths in a year, we'll see 25,000," he says. And because a fifth of the women who have received abortions in Mexico City since the law passed have come from outside the capital, he says this is an imposition of the personal interests of judges and legislators.
Mejía says that the opponents' argument that the judges and local assembly have imposed their will on the population is a political argument.
Instead, she says, the law is intended to equalize Mexican society overall. "The reality is, women who have resources have the possibility to have abortions. Women who are poor don't have that possibility. That was one of the major points the assembly made when discussing this," she says. "It is a social justice issue."
• Wire services were used in this report.