Image: March
Dario Lopez-Mills  /  AP
Pro-choice supporters march in downtown Mexico City on Thursday.
updated 3/30/2007 12:43:34 AM ET 2007-03-30T04:43:34

Several thousand women marched through the Mexican capital in support of a bill to legalize abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, a proposal that has drawn harsh criticism from the Roman Catholic Church.

About 3,000 protesters led by city legislators from various political parties on Thursday shouted "Freedom to choose!" and criticized President Felipe Calderon, a social conservative who has spoken out against the reform.

"A woman can decide to have an abortion or not have it, but it's her decision," said former presidential candidate Patricia Mercado, a leftist and feminist. "A secular state has the obligation to give the right to women to take this decision in the best conditions."

The bill was proposed by the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, which holds a majority in the assembly in Mexico City -- a federal district with its own legislature -- and party legislators are confident it will pass in April.

PRD lawmakers also sent a bill to the federal Congress to legalize abortion nationwide, but the bill is expected to face a tougher test there, where Calderon's conservative National Action Party is the biggest force.

On Sunday, thousands of anti-abortion activists marched through the capital led by Cardinal Norberto Rivera, Mexico's most prominent cleric.

The march followed an international anti-abortion conference featuring the Vatican's top anti-abortion campaigner, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo. The Vatican does not want to lose its fight against abortion in Mexico, which has the second-largest Catholic population in the world.

Mexico's constitution bans religious groups from political activity and the PRD has called on the authorities to stop clerical involvement in the marches.

Most Latin American countries, including Mexico, allow abortion if the woman's life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest. In November, Nicaragua passed a law banning abortion in all cases. Cuba permits abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, as does the United States.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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