Mexico pays up after denying a woman an abortion

The Mexican government settles with a woman who should have received an abortion.

Published March 8, 2006 5:49PM (EST)

In Mexico, where abortion is legal only for rape victims or women whose lives are at risk, a landmark legal settlement will be paid to a woman who was prevented from having an abortion after being raped at the age of 13. The Los Angeles Times reports that after little success in local courts, Paulina Ramirez, now a 19-year-old single mother, "filed a petition seeking redress with the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an international tribunal whose authority is recognized by Mexico." According to Ramirez, who was eligible for a legal abortion, numerous Baja California state officials and public healthcare workers pressured her to carry her pregnancy to term. The Times reports that "antiabortion activists visited Ramirez at the hospital, showing her pictures of aborted fetuses in a bid to persuade her to change her mind. The Baja California state attorney general drove her to see a priest who told her abortion was a sin."

What happened to Ramirez is not all that different from what could one day happen to women like her in South Dakota, where, according to Rep. Bill Napoli's guidelines, she would not be considered brutalized nearly enough to be compensated. Fortunately for Ramirez, the Mexican government awarded her $40,000 in legal and medical fees and reparations; she will also receive a government stipend for her child's education through high school. The government admitted that state officials who worked to prevent Ramirez from having an abortion violated federal law.

Marta Lamas, the founder of the nonprofit Reproduction Choice Information Group, one of the groups that has been working on a major publicity campaign to educate women about their abortion rights, said, "This is a triumph for all women. After six years, the government has finally acknowledged that it denied this young woman her rights." Despite the country's allowance for rape victims, only 25 women in Mexico City sought legally sanctioned abortions last year, according to the Times -- an improvement from the nine abortions in 2004. Of course, these numbers don't reflect the facts on the ground -- an estimated 600,000 to 1 million self-induced or back-alley abortions are performed annually in Mexico, and officials estimate that at least 1,000 women die every year from resulting complications.

Although Lamas and other reproductive rights activists are energized by the ruling, they admit that the road ahead will not be easy. Mexico started allowing hospitals to distribute emergency contraception only last year, and with conservative candidates for president, E.C.'s future there is uncertain. Lamas says she has been fighting for full reproductive choice for the past 35 years and expects it will "take us another 35 years" to achieve. Draconian abortion laws are the status quo in most of the United States -- er, I mean Latin America. Cuba is the only country in the region that offers full reproductive freedom.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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