Photograph of a button pinned to a shirt. The button reads "Fuera el aborto de codigo penal."

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: A Legal and Political Flashpoint in Today’s World

Friday, October 4, the Petrie-Flom Center will host “Abortion Battles in Mexico and Beyond: The Role of Law and the Courts,” from 8:30 AM to 12:30 PM. This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. 

By Alicia Ely Yamin

Abortion Battles in Mexico and Beyond: The Role of Law and the Courts,” hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center on Friday, October 4th, provides a critical opportunity to reflect upon the progress that has been made with respect to recognizing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) as legally enforceable rights, and the role courts have played in Mexico and elsewhere.  The event could not be more timely, as the battle lines were evident at the UN General Assembly’s Universal Health Coverage (UHC) Summit and in negotiations over the “Political Declaration of the High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage.” A group of countries led by the United States wanted to remove language of SRHR from the declaration and, in turn, the priorities for UHC. That effort was ultimately defeated but the debates showed the degree of contestation that these norms face in development paradigms, as well as international and national law.

Important lessons can be gleaned from understanding the history of abortion battles in Mexico. It illustrates the way in which this contestation can often play out, as well as the role played by  courts and the law. Although abortion is generally criminalized in Mexico, 2007 reforms to the Penal Code and the Health Law of the Federal District (D.F.) decriminalized abortion up to the twelfth week of pregnancy and established free provision services in the capital. This law represented an extraordinary paradigm shift in the country, which had a regime of exceptions to criminalization, as well as in the continent with respect to abortion and women’s SRHR. In 2007,  two constitutional challenges were presented against the Federal District’s trimester regime reforms. In 2008 the plenary of the Supreme Court of Justice upheld their constitutionality. Following the Mexico City reforms, groups against and in favor of abortion both increasingly attempted to restrict or expand access, respectively, throughout the country. Conservatives promoted a wave of constitutional reforms across different states of the Mexico, under its federalist system, to incorporate articles protecting the “right to life since conception until natural death.” These amendments were approved in 18 of the 31 states in the country; others were presented but defeated in another eight states. In some states, these constitutional reforms were preceded or followed by attempts by constituencies in favor of abortion to expand exceptions for legal abortion via reforms to state penal codes and/or to introduce a trimester regime. As of last week, Oaxaca is the second Mexican state to decriminalize abortion in the first trimester.

In recent years, the focus of some anti-abortion campaigners has attempted to restrict access to legal abortion through reducing the exceptional circumstances under which abortion can legally occur. Yet, at the same time, there has also been a wave of  pro-abortion social mobilization throughout the region, and specifically in Mexico. Litigation has been brought to courts, and the Supreme Court of Justice in particular, by both pro-abortion and anti-abortion groups. In these cases, Mexico arguably illustrates how the intervention of the Supreme Court of Justice in these turbulent political waters can produce what Reva Segal has called “agnostic engagements,” encouraging actors on diverse sides of the issue to respond to each other’s arguments within a common framework.

Photograph “#escrachefeminista” by gaelx, used under Creative Commons license.

Alicia Ely Yamin

Alicia Ely Yamin is the inaugural Senior Fellow in the Global Health and Rights Project (GHRP) at the Petrie-Flom Center, a collaboration with the Global Health Education and Learning Incubator (GHELI) at Harvard University. Yamin is currently a Senior Scholar in Residence at GHELI, an Adjunct Lecturer on Global Health and Population at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and a Department of Global Health and Social Medicine Affiliate at Harvard Medical School. Trained in both law and public health at Harvard, she has worked at the intersection of the two fields while living abroad in Latin America and East Africa. She is known globally for her pioneering scholarship and advocacy in relation to economic and social rights, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the right to health.

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