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updated 9/8/2010 1:46:37 PM ET 2010-09-08T17:46:37

Seven women in Mexico serving prison terms of up to 29 years for the death of their newborns were freed Tuesday after a legal reform enacted in the state of Guanajuato lowered their sentences.

The women's cases case drew national attention in Mexico and their release is unlikely to staunch the fiery debate about whether some conservative states are trying to overzealously enforce bans on elective abortion by charging women who may have suffered miscarriages.

The women are largely poor and uneducated, and they claim they suffered miscarriages — not viable births — and did nothing to harm their unborn children.

"They are innocent, they all suffered miscarriages," said women's rights activist Veronica Cruz, who championed their cases.

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State prosecutors maintained to the end that the women's trials were fair, that their babies were born alive but died because of mistreatment or lack of care, a crime defined under state law "homicide against a relative."

The women were not absolved, but rather released under a legal reform passed after the state government concluded that their sentences "were inappropriate, given that they were excessively punitive and ranged from 25 to 35 years."

The reform reduced the sentences to 3 to 8 years, the time already served by the women.

"The important thing was to have them freed," Cruz said. "They will talk and decide if they want to undertake any other action," to pursue a reversal of their sentences.

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The Guanajuato state government said it will help the women get on with their lives after some spent as long as 8 years in prison.

However, the state's reputation for conservatism made many suspicious.

While Guanajuato still allows abortion under very limited circumstances, like rape, rights activists say that in practice even that possibility is often denied women.

Activist Rosalia Cruz Sanchez says doctors fearing prosecution often require a woman impregnated by rape to produce a letter from prosecutors confirming that. She said authorities often delay until the window for such an abortion — 12 weeks in most states — has passed, forcing the woman to bear the child.

Abortion on demand in the first trimester is legal only in Mexico City, under a 2007 law that has enraged the country's conservatives and sparked a wave of state right-to-life laws.

While the "Guanajuato Seven" have received largely favorable media coverage, not everyone was cheering about the legal reform that led to their release.

In a statement, two pro-life groups — the Yucatan Pro Network and The Center for Women's Studies — said that "homicide against a relative will never be a woman's right."

It is "worrisome that now a woman attacking the life of her child would be considered a non-serious crime, as long as she does it within 24 hours after it is born."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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