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State legislators look to Mexico for direction in fight for abortion rights

Progressive legislators are studying how activists in Mexico, whose Supreme Court ruled to decriminalize abortion last year, effectively won back certain abortion care rights.
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State legislators have turned their attention to their neighbor to the south for guidance and direction about how to navigate a newly restrictive legal landscape in the U.S. regarding abortion.

Mexico's Supreme Court decriminalized abortion last year, loosening decades of restrictive laws in the predominately Catholic nation, leading to more permissive laws in several of its states.

The ruling is a stark contrast to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month to overturn Roe v. Wade — the decision that reversed 50 years of precedent and allowed individual states to outlaw or severely curtail abortion care.

Now — because the abortion accessibility landscape that lawmakers had faced in Mexico until recently more closely resembles the terrain in parts of the U.S. — U.S. state legislators have begun to learn how Mexico's policymakers and women’s health advocates managed to provide safe abortion care to women — and how they won back certain abortion rights.

“Being able to go to Mexico, and visit activists who have been doing the work on the ground for many, many years, who changed the culture, changed what is possible, who really forced lawmakers and health care providers to think differently about abortion as health care, and then to see the ways in which the policies and the legal landscape and the medical landscape have shifted as a result was incredibly powerful,” said Julie Gonzales, a Democratic Colorado state senator who traveled throughout Mexico with five other state legislators earlier this summer.

Mexico's changed landscape on abortion

The trip, organized by State Innovation Exchange, a progressive legislative policy group, was designed for state lawmakers to get a better sense of how grassroots and progressive policy efforts could help bring about meaningful change to abortion rights.

Mexico’s trajectory offered an interesting case study, organizers said.

When the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in September 2021 to decriminalize abortion, experts said the decision would, over time, open the door to legalizing abortion throughout the heavily Catholic country.

As of May, nine of Mexico’s 32 states had put in place laws or measures legalizing the right to receive abortion care during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, though laws criminalizing abortion are still on the books in many of the nation’s other states. 

Unlike in the U.S., Mexican law had, before the ruling, subjected both patients and abortion providers to criminal penalties, including prison time. Many abortion rights advocates celebrated the ruling, mostly on the grounds that that it would now be unconstitutional to punish abortion as a crime.

It remains unclear, experts said, whether doctors in the largely religiously conservative country have so far been more willing to administer abortion care. The court, in a separate ruling, also imposed limits on conscientious objection as a reason not to provide abortion care at many health care facilities, according to abortion rights advocates. That has, in effect, led to medication abortion becoming the most popular form of care administered. 

Abortion advocates and lawmakers credited a decades-long surge of activism in Mexico and Latin America as leading to steady gains for abortion rights. Six months after the initial decision, Mexico’s Supreme Court also ruled that underage girls could receive abortion care without parental consent if they became pregnant as a result of rape.

The lawmakers said they were closely examining that broad effort as they aimed to rebuild a similar one in the U.S., now that there is no longer a constitutional right to abortion.

Abortion rights demonstrators march in Mexico City
Abortion rights demonstrators march to demand the decriminalization of abortion during International Safe Abortion Day in Mexico City on Sept. 28.Alfredo Estrella / AFP via Getty Images file

Lessons learned

During their trip, the six legislators crisscrossed Mexico, meeting with abortion providers, political activists and lawmakers who’d fought for years for abortion rights. 

The biggest takeaway? Their ability to convince others that abortion care equals health care. 

“We witnessed how in Mexico interruption of pregnancy up to 12 weeks is seen as health care,” said Jennifer Driver, the senior director of reproductive rights at the State Innovation Exchange, which organized the trip.

From a policy perspective, lawmakers suggested one of the most important lessons they took away was extensive and inexpensive access to medication abortion.

“Doctors and activists are really shifting away from the clinic model and really shifting toward being able to utilize medication abortion in order to help increase capacity,” said Gonzales, the Colorado lawmaker.

In Mexico, medication abortion is the standard for abortions before 12 weeks, said Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, a Democratic state senator from Arizona, and "I think in Arizona, that probably will be our path forward.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland has said he believes states do not have the right to ban abortion pills, setting up a potential legal showdown even as some states move to outlaw them. But some lawmakers remain optimistic.

“The promise that we see in our sisters, just south of the Rio Grande, is the fact that we can use them as a model for us here,” said Linda Lopez, a Democratic state senator from New Mexico who participated in the trip. 

“It’s not going to be forever,” she added, referring to the consequences of the U.S. ruling.