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Why Mexico’s historic decriminalisation of abortion is no guarantee of access

Mexico’s Supreme Court has decriminalised abortion nationwide in what has been celebrated as a “milestone” for women’s reproductive rights in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

The ruling means federal criminal penalties for women seeking a termination have been thrown out.

Announcing the decision on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Wednesday, the court said: “The legal system that criminalised abortion” in Mexican federal law was unconstitutional because it “violates the human rights of women and people with the ability to gestate”.

The court’s decision was hailed as a “historic milestone” by the Information Group on Reproductive Choice, or GIRE, the non-profit organisation which brought the case.

However, the ruling does not mean all women in Mexico will be able to access abortion, which is still banned in particular states.

It comes just over a year since millions of women in the US were stripped of the right to have an abortion, which had been protected since the landmark Roe v Wade ruling in 1973.

The US Supreme Court ruling in June last year sparked widespread backlash as it led to the immediate recriminalisation of abortion in nearly half of US states.

And galvanised by the ruling, almost 50 years after they were guaranteed, anti-abortion groups in Mexico have already pledged to fight back.

What does the ruling mean for women in Mexico?

Mexico’s high court ordered that abortion be removed from the federal penal code. The ruling will require the federal public health service and all federal health institutions to offer abortion to anyone who requests it.

“No woman or pregnant person, nor any health worker, will be able to be punished for abortion,” the Information Group for Chosen Reproduction, known by its Spanish initials GIRE, said.

Some 20 Mexican states, however, still criminalise abortion. While judges in those states will have to abide by the court’s decision, further legal work will be required to remove all penalties.

The decision came two years after the court ruled that abortion was not a crime in one northern state. That ruling set off a slow state-by-state process of decriminalising it.

Last week, the central state of Aguascalientes became the 12th state to drop criminal penalties.

Abortion-rights activists will have to continue seeking legalisation to permit it state by state, though Wednesday’s decision should make that easier. State legislatures can also act on their own to erase abortion penalties.

How will things change?

For now, the ruling does not mean that every Mexican women will be able to access the procedure immediately, according to Fernanda Díaz de León, sub-director and legal expert for women’s rights group IPAS.

What it does do – in theory – is obligate federal agencies to provide the care to patients. That is likely to have a cascade of effects.

Ms Díaz de León said removing the federal ban took away another excuse used by care providers to deny abortions in states where the procedure is no longer a crime.

It also allows women with formal employment who are part of the social security system and government employees to seek the procedure in federal institutions in states where abortion is still criminalised, she said.

How does it compare to the US?

The ruling by the Supreme Court in Mexico is yet another sweeping decision in favour of women’s reproductive rights in Latin America, where a “green wave” – a reference to the green bandanas worn by pro-choice protesters – has seen multiple countries in the region lift abortion restrictions in recent years.

Yet the trend in Latin America is in stark contrast to what is happening in the US, where nearly half of the states have dramatically reduced access to abortion following the overturning of Roe v Wade.

Some American women were already seeking help from Mexican abortion rights activists to obtain pills used to end pregnancies, the Associated Press has reported.

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 1973 ruling in the US has already been referenced by anti-abortion groups in Mexico decrying Wednesday’s decision.

Criticising Mexico’s Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday, Irma Barrientos, director of the Civil Association for the Rights of the Conceived, said opponents would continue the fight against expanded abortion access.

“We’re not going to stop,” Ms Barrientos said. “Let’s remember what happened in the United States. After 40 years, the Supreme Court reversed its abortion decision, and we’re not going to stop until Mexico guarantees the right to life from the moment of conception.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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