Mexico moves toward legal abortion, but women still face jail

Guanajuato (Mexico) (AFP) –


Martha Mendez and Susana Duenas were both teenagers when they committed their "crime": suffering a miscarriage.

Accused of having an abortion -- which is illegal in all but two states in Mexico -- Mendez was forced to ask her fetus for forgiveness. Duenas was jailed for seven years.

Both women's stories highlight the extreme views on abortion in Mexico, where the ruling party's push to legalize it nationwide has run into fiery resistance from conservatives.

Mexico City legalized abortion in 2007, followed by the southern state of Oaxaca this year.

But the procedure is outlawed in the other 30 Mexican states, permitted only in cases of rape or danger to the mother's life.

The situation is similar across much of traditionally Catholic Latin America, where just two countries, Cuba and Uruguay, have legalized abortion.

In Mexico, more than 4,200 women have been prosecuted since 2000 for having an abortion or miscarriage, according to Veronica Cruz of the rights group Las Libres (Free Women).

Prosecutions increased after abortion was legalized in the capital, in a case of widespread backlash in more conservative states, says Cruz.

"After Mexico City decriminalized abortion, the number of criminal cases shot up. But the worst thing isn't the justice system, it's the public hospitals, where medical personnel call the police if they suspect a woman of having an abortion," she told AFP.

Leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's party has introduced a bill to decriminalize abortion nationwide for up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

But it has stalled in Congress over conservative opposition, and Lopez Obrador -- who heads a broad and fragile coalition that spans the spectrum from veteran leftists to evangelical Christians -- has not pushed to move it forward, instead calling for a referendum on the issue.

- Poor and innocent -

Duenas, a 38-year-old janitor, comes from an impoverished area in the central state of Guanajuato.

At 19, she stopped having her period. But, having never received sex education of any kind, she did not realize she was pregnant.

"I was sleeping, and suddenly I felt like something was detaching from me," she said.

She went to the hospital, where a social worker told her she had just suffered a miscarriage. The woman accused her of provoking it on purpose.

"You had a baby. You threw it away, you killed it," Duenas remembered her saying.

She was arrested and taken to a police station, where an officer "took out a big crucifix and told me, 'Confess to him what you did,'" she said.

She was told to sign a piece of paper. She said it was blank at the time. Prosecutors later presented it in court as her confession.

She was convicted of homicide and sentenced to 25 years.

Duenas described her experience in prison as "hell." Her guards and some fellow inmates called her a "murderer."

But others put her in touch with Las Libres, which took on her case and managed to get her released.

While in prison, she got pregnant again, with another inmate she met at a theater workshop. Her baby daughter, born in prison, was sent to live with an aunt.

Now 12 years old, the girl calls her aunt "Mommy" and does not want to live with Duenas.

"I've lost all hope that she'll come back to me," Duenas said, sobbing.

- Forced apology -

Mendez was 18 and studying at a university in the eastern city of Veracruz when she realized she was pregnant.

She and the father had just broken up.

Two days later, she started bleeding and went to the hospital, where she miscarried.

"A nurse came with the dead fetus and put it in my face. 'Ask his forgiveness. You killed him,' she said. You end up thinking you did something wrong," Mendez says through tears.

The hospital gave the fetus a name and made Mendez give him a "Christian burial." Then she was arrested.

Las Libres managed to get her released.

But her story came out in the local tabloid press, and strangers would stop her on the street and call her a "murderer."

Las Libres helped her move to the central city of Leon, find a job and continue her studies.

Raised a Catholic, today she accompanies women who are having an abortion.

"I help them so they won't be mistreated the way I was," she said.