Advocates for the legalization of abortion in Chihuahua marched in downtown Juárez on International Women's Day in March. Some abortion advocates say that the feminist movement in Juárez is largely based on protesting femicide, a focus that often leaves abortion access as an afterthought. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)
By Verónica Martínez / La Verdad

A decision by Mexico’s National Supreme Court of Justice that declares the criminalization of abortion in Mexico unconstitutional opens a new window for Borderland women, who for decades have crossed the Rio Grande to end their pregnancies.

In a historic decision, the court on Tuesday banned the criminalization of abortion as set out in Article 196 of the criminal code of the state of Coahuila, and sets a binding precedent for judges in every state to decide cases in favor of women.

“No longer can any woman be prosecuted for having an abortion without violating the court’s decision and the Constitution,” said Arturo Zaldívar, chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The court’s decision in Mexico was announced less than a week after a law in Texas banned access to most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

Abortion on the border: a three-part series

Part 1: Legislation in Texas and criminalization in Chihuahua
Part 2: The institutionalization of stigma and shame
Part 3: Activists stay resilient

Given the new ban in Texas and the court’s decision in Mexico, binational organizations that advocate for women’s rights believe that more El Pasoans will decide to cross the border into Mexico for abortion services.

For many years, people living on the border have seen the two countries’ proximity as an opportunity to exchange health care services, including access to abortion. With abortion considered a criminal offense in Mexico, Mexican border residents have opted to travel to the United States to access reproductive health clinics.

Mexico’s new legal landscape and the restrictions in Texas have not yet changed women’s options for abortions on the border, but it could reverse the roles of the two regions, said Mariela Castro, spokesperson for the Marea Verde Chihuahua collective.

“Mexican women went to clinics in Texas, and it’s interesting to see how history has repeated itself. What is making (abortions) possible in Mexico is a court decision, just like Roe v. Wade was in its day,” she said.

Women march through downtown Ciudad Juárez for the “8M: Juntas nos Cuidamos” in support for women’s rights and the legalization of abortion in March. (Rey R. Jauregui/ La Verdad)

Feminist groups who advocate for abortion in Mexico, such as Marea Verde and its state affiliates, have for years tried to achieve the right to have an abortion through legislation. This is how abortion was legalized in Mexico City, and in the states of Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Veracruz, Castro explained.

“I think this will very likely open the door for Texas women to come to Chihuahua,” Castro said. “We now have the possibility of knowing statistically how many women will come to this side of the border for abortions, and who they are.”

The legal precedent established by the Supreme Court in Coahuila has also been a hopeful sign for abortion advocates and service providers in El Paso. Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas in El Paso celebrated the decision, indicating that it is a step that brings Ciudad Juárez closer to reproductive freedom.

“This decision signals hope that one day our sister community will no longer have to cross international borders and checkpoints to access the competent and safe health services we provide under the supervision of a licensed medical team in the United States,” said Xochitl Rodríguez, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood in El Paso.

Since March 2020, abortion services in El Paso have gone from limited to nonexistent. Hill Top Women’s Reproductive Clinic closed, and Planned Parenthood stopped providing abortions once the pandemic started.

These closings have limited clinical abortion services not only for El Paso residents, but also for Juárez residents who would have considered crossing.

Elia Orrantia, director of Sin Violencia, an organization that offers legal and psychological support to victims of sexual violence in Ciudad Juárez, said that access to abortion services is not determined just by the legality of the procedure, but also by social and economic factors.

“We’re seeing that things are going backwards (in Texas), so I do see the possibility of U.S. women seeking services from organizations such as ours,” Orrantia said. “This could also open the possibility of more affordable abortions.”

The criminal code of the state of Chihuahua makes voluntary abortion a crime, permitting it only in cases of sexual violence, if the mother’s health is at risk, if the woman has been forcibly inseminated or if the abortion was accidental.

But the recent Supreme Court decision means that now the state criminal code doesn’t comply with Mexico’s Constitution, said Ali Méndez, an attorney who specializes in reproductive and human rights.

“In Chihuahua, if a woman wants to terminate a pregnancy voluntarily, without having to explain that it was a rape or a health issue, this precedent establishes that she could request an abortion and if she is denied, she has legal recourse to exercise her rights,” Méndez said.

The court ruling not only prevents criminal penalties for people who have abortions; it also covers the doctors who perform the procedure and the women, known as acompañantes, who offer emotional and financial support.

The next step is for Chihuahua’s Congress to change the state’s criminal code so that no woman needs to sue, said Méndez, who for seven years worked as legislative coordinator for the organization Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida, and now works as an independent consultant.  

In a press release on social media, Marea Verde celebrated the national decision and called on Chihuahua’s Congress and health care officials to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“We remind the lawmakers who serve in the new legislature that the Criminal Code of the State of Chihuahua is unconstitutional, that abortion should be removed from this code, and that lawmakers should guarantee that women, girls and pregnant people receive appropriate care to terminate a pregnancy. We will stay on this issue; we will be working to make it so.”

A woman at the 2021 International Women’s Day march in Ciudad Juárez wears a green handkerchief with the phrase “Legal and Safe Abortion Will be a Law.” The green handkerchief has been a symbol of support for the abortion-rights movement in Latin America. (Veronica Martinez/ La Verdad)

The decision by the Supreme Court came on the eve of a newly elected state legislature taking office and with María Eugenia Campos, who opposes abortion, coming in as governor.

Even though Mexico’s Supreme Court has struck down criminal penalties for abortions, work remains to set out a legal route to adjust and train the state health care system to lay the foundation for offering abortion services, Orrantia said.

“We applaud (this decision) but we hope it’s not just window dressing. We want it to reach the level of health care services,” Orrantia said. “We might have laws, but there still can be many ways to deny a woman who wants to end a pregnancy.”

Victoria Rossi of El Paso Matters contributed to this story.

Cover photo: Advocates for the legalization of abortion in Chihuahua marched in downtown Juárez on International Women’s Day in March. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.