September 20, 2010 / 5:39 PM / 7 years ago

Mexico abortion sentences reveal social collision

<p>Yolanda Martinez, who was just freed from jail, cheers while surrounded by journalists in Guanajuato September 8, 2010. Martinez and six others, freed after serving long jail sentences for undergoing abortions in central Mexico this month, have garnered global attention, becoming a fresh flashpoint between conservative authorities and activists. The women, some of whom were in jail for six years, said they had suffered miscarriages. Disagreement over reproductive rights has festered since the Mexican capital legalized first-trimester abortion in 2007, a first in Latin America after Cuba.Mario Armas</p>

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Women seeking abortions in Mexico steal away to the country's liberal capital, escaping their home states where the practice is condemned and illegal.

Authorities in almost all of Mexico's conservative states have fought back against Mexico City's abortion policies, among the most permissive in largely Catholic Latin America, by making examples of specific women and tightening laws.

"I couldn't speak with anyone," one woman, who asked to remain unnamed, said at an abortion clinic in Mexico City.

"This is punished by jail time in Guadalajara," she said of her native city in Jalisco state.

The 29-year-old, aided by a reproductive rights group in Mexico City, traveled to and from the capital in overnight buses so she wouldn't be missed at her job at a travel agency.

Disagreement over reproductive rights has festered since the Mexican capital legalized first-trimester abortion in 2007, a first in Latin America after Cuba.

Abortion is just one example of how policies in Mexico City, one of the world's biggest cities, diverge from the rest of what is in many ways a socially conservative nation.

The capital's leftist mayor Marcelo Ebrard has legalized gay marriage and enraged the Church, which holds considerable sway in a country with the world's second largest Catholic population after Brazil.

By contrast, the state of Guanajuato -- where officials once banned kissing in public -- became a flashpoint between conservative authorities and pro-abortion activists over seven women who were given severe prison sentences for "parental homicide" though they said they had suffered miscarriages.

Prosecutors said the women carried their babies to term and then killed or abandoned them. They got up to 29 years.

CONSERVATIVE BACKLASH

<p>Yolanda Martinez, who was just freed from jail, hugs a man next to a sign reading "jail" in Guanajuato September 8, 2010. Martinez and six others, freed after serving long jail sentences for undergoing abortions in central Mexico this month, have garnered global attention, becoming a fresh flashpoint between conservative authorities and activists. The women, some of whom were in jail for six years, said they had suffered miscarriages. Disagreement over reproductive rights has festered since the Mexican capital legalized first-trimester abortion in 2007, a first in Latin America after Cuba.Mario Armas</p>

While jail terms for illegal abortions are between six months and three years in most Mexican states, activists held the women up as victims of a conservative backlash to Mexico City's permissive attitude toward abortion.

Facing media scrutiny and a UN investigation, Guanajuato authorities reduced the sentences and released the seven women this month, but they were not absolved.

"All of these women gave birth, and some even heard their babies cry," said state attorney general Carlos Zamarripa.

Since 2007, 17 Mexican states have passed constitutional amendments defining life as beginning at conception.

<p>A woman just freed from jail carries a child while hugging a friend in Guanajuato September 8, 2010. She and six others, freed after serving long jail sentences for undergoing abortions in central Mexico this month, have garnered global attention, becoming a fresh flashpoint between conservative authorities and activists. The women, some of whom were in jail for six years, said they had suffered miscarriages. Disagreement over reproductive rights has festered since the Mexican capital legalized first-trimester abortion in 2007, a first in Latin America after Cuba.Mario Armas</p>

Guanajuato-based feminist group Las Libres estimates the state has imprisoned 160 women for abortion, though attorney general Zamarripa says no women have been jailed for the crime since 2003 according to state records.

Rather than risk jail time, some women try to slip away to Mexico City to end unwanted pregnancies.

Of the some 40,000 abortions performed in Mexico City since 2007, 24 percent were performed on women from surrounding states, according to city government data.

But not all women find the support of rights organizations to travel to the capital. They instead often turn to back-alley treatments or dangerous pills.

Many women have been jailed after seeking emergency medical care for botched abortions, activists say.

Though all Mexican states legally allow abortion when pregnancy results from rape and most do when the woman's life is in danger, activists say in reality access is limited.

"Doctors in Mexico's states tell women they will do the procedure, but that they have to wait," Oriana Lopez of reproductive rights group Fondo Maria said.

"What they are doing is waiting until 12 weeks have passed so they won't have the possibility to go to Mexico City," where public hospitals will only perform ordinary abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, she added.

Reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Missy Ryan

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