“How do we abort now? Without fear!” said Amanda V. González, who is part of REDefine Veracruz, when she responds to the question of what it’s like to have an abortion in her state, 10 months after abortion was decriminalized at up to 12 weeks of gestation. Veracruz is one of the 32 states in Mexico where live is lived between the thrill of carnaval and the vigot of religious fervor; between the admiration of beautiful women and the sexual and femicidal violence against them.
“Before, we did almost all the support work by phone, hardly ever in person, some collectives did it in peoples’ homes, but we didn’t,” said Jacqueline Estrada, who is an abortion helper from the Aquelarre Veracruz collective. The acompañantas, as the young helpers call themselves, provide technical assistance and emotional support for others, so they can make decisions about their own bodies.
“We have protocols to acquire and distribute the pills, during the calls we would never say the word [abortion], we were super careful, we were afraid because the law was against us. Now it’s different, now we don’t have to hide.”
Nancy Torres Castañeda is also an abortion helper, she’s from the Colmena Verde collective. Before the decriminalization, all her work was secret. She used word of mouth and put up stickers near universities to publicize her work. “We were the target of aggression on social media, and some threats. Decriminalization is a triumph for our work.”
In Mexico, abortion is considered a crime, and it’s punished in different ways in each of the 32 states in the country. Only seven states have decriminalized abortion up to 12 weeks. Veracruz was the fourth state to do so, in July of 2021, after Mexico City, Oaxaca, Hidalgo, and before Baja California, Colima, and Sinaloa.
Other states penalize abortion with few exceptions, for example if the pregnancy is the result of rape, if there is a malformed embryo, if the abortion was accidental, if the woman’s life or heath is at risk, or if it was an artificial, non-consensual insemination. The most conservative states always penalize abortion, unless it is spontaneous or the pregnancy is the result of rape. The penalty can be up to six years in jail.
Veracruz was unique, because unlike the other states, it didn’t punish women who had abortions with jail, but with “re-education” and community work. But that doesn’t mean that people wishing to access abortion had it easier than in other places, because in practice they could be charged with other crimes with longer sentences, like infanticide by the parent or a failure to provide care, which could send them to prison.
From 2005 to 2010, according to data presented by legislators in Veracruz, 163 women were charged and sentenced for infanticide and parental homicide. In addition, unlike other states, in Veracruz those who carried out the procedure or helped women to do so could be thrown in jail, under the pretext of complicity in a crime.
Twenty Years Ago
Twenty years before this victory, in the summer of 2001, I was a reporter for a local paper in Veracruz, and my editors asked me to write a story about clandestine abortion clinics. Even though it was illegal, there were many such places. All you had to do was open the classified section of any printed newspaper and find ads like “Pregnant? Need help?” or “Are you pregnant and you don’t know what to do? We can help. Call this number.”
To do the story, I called various clinics, and said I was pregnant. In one, they gave me an appointment in a building in the center of the Port of Veracruz. I went up the steps and found a three-bedroom apartment. There was hardly any light. It wasn’t that big, but the lack of furniture and people made it seem spacious. That austerity allowed the owners to quickly dismount the “clinic” if there was a complaint to the police. In the middle of one of the rooms, a metallic obstetric bed sat starkly beside the doctor’s desk. He introduced himself as a gynecologist but there was no diploma that confirmed his name and profession on the wall, so as not to reveal his identity.
“Sit down and tell me why you’re here,” is more or less what he said. I told him I was pregnant and that I didn’t want the baby. He asked me medical questions: my age, when I started to menstruate, when my last period was, and when was the last time I had sex. He told me how much it would cost, around US$40, the equivalent of what I paid monthly for the shared rooftop room where I lived. An amount that would be hard for almost any university student to come up with. The man, who I remember having stony eyes, a white lab coat, and who greeted me with greasy, wrinkled hands, told me that if I didn’t have all the money, he would accept cell phones or DVDs as payment.
I left his office in fear and revulsion, thinking of all the young women who had to expose themselves to men like him, with no guarantee that things would go well, or that someone would look after them if something went wrong.
Through a contract from a friend who was from Veracruz and who had studied in private schools —I had arrived to Veracruz to go to university—I found two gynecologists who did abortions in legally established maternity clinics. They did the abortions in a clandestine way, in the same space where they delivered babies.
The process was strange, to put it mildly: first you had to go with a doctor who you paid for an appointment and confirmed, via ultrasound, the pregnancy. That doctor would chew you out and tell you that he couldn’t do it because Christ and the Virgin wouldn’t allow it, but then he gave you the business card of someone who could. The card had the information of a maternity clinic located just a few blocks from the political and religious center of Veracruz. Unlike the clandestine clinic, which was hidden away, where you didn’t even know the doctor’s name, here everything was filled with light and visible. The cost for an abortion was US$250, around six times what it cost at the other location.
Back then, getting an abortion in Veracruz was illegal and pregnant women and their helpers were criminally prosecuted. The Group for Information on Chosen Reproduction (GIRE) documented the story of Carmen (names have been changed), a woman who had a spontaneous abortion in February of 2013 while she was at a Red Cross [hospital] for abdominal pain. The paramedics accused her of having shut herself into the bathroom to abort, and she was charged with qualified homicide, even though there was no evidence against her. Carmen was imprisoned for eight months before she managed to get released.
Like Carmen, Martha Patricia was also criminally changed, in her case, for the crime of abortion. In December of 2014, she began to experience pain and nausea. She went to a public hospital where she was diagnosed with colitis and given treatment, three months later she again experienced intense pain, ran to the hospital and learned that she was 20 months pregnant. She had a spontaneous abortion and the doctors accused of being a killer. Just like in Carmen’s case, the complicity between health care workers and workers in the justice system resulted in her criminalization. She was criminally charged, but thanks to the work of Las Libres, a civil society organization and the Center for Economic Information and Teaching (CIDE), a public university, she avoided prison.
Between 2007 and 2016, according to information from GIRE available in a report titled Maternity or Punishment, there were 87 criminal complaints for abortion, 12 cases went to court, three people were sent to preventative prison and 22 to jail. Of the total, only three were women and the rest men, who could have been jailed as practitioners or helpers.
Months after I did the story about how to access clandestine abortions in Veracruz, I became pregnant. Because of the reporting I’d done, I knew I didn’t want to expose myself to a clandestine clinic, and that there were maternity clinics that offered the services. I chose to use “the pill.” I had seen postcards with information on how to end a pregnancy with Misoprostol, which had been handed out by women at university. I didn’t want to do it in the room I rented and have the landlord denounce me to my family. I spent the whole night awake, full of fear and guilt.
The pills didn’t work. I decided to go to the maternity clinic, the expensive one. There, among women with bulging stomachs and after the gynecologist reamed me out for being a bad woman, for losing the opportunity to have a son of god, I was put under, and less than an hour later I left with an empty belly. For a university student, paying US$250 was impossible. I could do it because I studied at a public university and didn’t pay tuition, and my parents helped me with my expenses and my rent. I was able to save the 1,500 pesos (around $75) I earned every month. The abortion cost me four full months of my salary.
“There have always been clandestine clinics or private maternity clinics that, at the same time as they delivered babies, did illegal abortions,” said Estrada, from the Aquelarre collective in Veracruz.
“You find those spaces through word of mouth, with the stigma that you’re doing something immoral, you’re revictimized by the health care workers who take money from the same women they treat so badly.”
In maternity clinics we are mistreated, as if being punished: a moralizing speech, how dare we do what we want with our bodies. But for most women in Mexico those spaces are not an option, because they don’t have information to make a choice, or the money to pay for it. For most women, the only other option is to expose themselves to procedures which put their lives at risk (Veracruz is in third place for maternal mortality on a national scale) or keep an unwanted pregnancy. Many are adolescents, and some have experienced sexual violence. Between 2017 and 2020, two of every 10 births in Veracruz were to teenagers, over the same period 990 cases of sexual violence against adolescents were heard, according to data presented to congress by legislator Mónica Robles in the summer of 2021, as she argued for the decriminalization of abortion.
I was able to get a safe abortion because I had information, as a reporter, and the money to pay for it. In Mexico only five percent of women between 15 and 25 (that’s how old I was at the time) can afford to pay for an abortion at a private clinic, which rises slightly to 15.6 percent for women between 25-29. Even accessing Misoprostol, which costs between 500 and 2,000 pesos ($25-$100), is only affordable for 19 percent of women between 15-25, and 36 percent of those between 25 and 49, according to data compiled by Carolina Torreblanca from Data Cívica.
For the vast majority of women in this country, secure abortions are not accessible. Only seven of 32 states in Mexico have decriminalized abortion. Sixteen million women live in Mexico City, Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Veracruz and Sinaloa, which means 48 million women in Mexico are not legally protected. For them, accessing a secure abortion depends on having the information and the economic resources to be able to travel to a state where it is decriminalized.
In Mexico City, the first state to decrminalize abortion, 240,900 abortions have been performed between 2007 and 2021, a third of which were provided to women from out of state. But even in the states where abortion is decriminalized, it isn’t guaranteed, as the women activists who have assisted abortions in those places point out.
Decriminalized, but Barriers Remain
Amanda V. González, from REDefine Veracruz, says the decriminalization that took place 10 months ago hasn’t taken away the importance of the work being done by activists and abortion helpers. Because the there is no guarantee of accessing a dignified abortion in a public clinic, their work has actually become even more vital.
“The criminal code changed, but there’s no automatic access to rights. In theory you could go to a health center, but in practice there are many excuses [to not provide abortions],” she said.
Among the excuses are to say that there are no clear instructions, that they don’t have enough information, that they don’t have the supplies or that they conscientiously object to providing abortions.
“There shouldn’t be excuses, because we’re not starting from zero, before the decrminalization we already had the NOM-46, which provides instructions for carrying out an abortion in cases of rape,” said Gónzalez. The NOM-46 is a regulation that established country-wide protocols, and because of it, every hospital ought to have supplies, and medical professionals should know how to proceed when a woman asks for an abortion. Especially now that it’s decriminalized.
Amanda remembers the case of a young woman from Veracruz who went to a municipal clinic after abortion was decriminalized, where she was told they don’t attend such cases. They sent her elsewhere, where they said they couldn’t help, from there she went to a larger hospital where she was denied the right to an abortion when she was told the facility was being used to receive Covid-19 positive patients exclusively. Finally, the young woman was able to access an abortion with assistance from helpers.
“We still see criminalization, a lack of political will, a lack of ethics. It’s like we always say: abortion is legally decriminalized, now we have to socially decriminalize it, which is a much slower process. We’ve made a huge step forward, massive, because they used to be able to put us in jail and now they can’t. For me that’s incredible, but our work isn’t over. There will always be people who are against abortion, but so long as there is a social and legal structure to support women; legal, safe, and free abortions will be possible,” said Amanda.
Rebeca Lorea, who was the campaign coordinator with the GIRE, agrees that the decriminalization of abortion doesn’t guarantee access. Today, in addition to pushing for the recognition of abortion in the rest of the country, there also needs to be follow up on the level of public police so as to guarantee access. “Carrying out campaigns to decriminalize abortion is a well-trodden path, but the way to guarantee access is less clear. We have to sit down and plan and review, for example, where the resources to guarantee safe and free abortions are going, and we also have to look into the issue of conscientious objection by medical workers.”
Monica Robles, the Veracruz legislator who pushed for decriminalization, said that while it’s true there has been a protocol published so that women can access their right to an abortion, there are still many obstacles. “Conscientious objection, the lack of information, and the lack of awareness about how to access this right are among the most important barriers we’re seeing,” she said.
Amanda, Nan and Jacquie agree that the work of abortion helpers didn’t fall off after decriminalization, rather, it grew, as women who decided to seek abortions sought their support, out of fear of being ignored in clinics, denied their rights, and judged for their decision.
Where the State is Absent, Women Step In
When abortion is prohibited by the state, helpers support access to the right to choose; and when it is decriminalized but there is a lack of guarantees, the helpers step in. In addition to networks and protocols, they built a “toolbox” rooted in their experiences. The toolbox seeks to unpack the social and political context, the international and national legal context for abortion, and ideas about religion, secularism, and science to understand what abortion can mean in the life of each and every woman. They assist abortion seekers, they raise funds, they distribute medicine.
Jacqueline Estrada says her training as an abortion helper has come through compañeras from other cities—like Mexico City and Guanajuato—who were doing this work before her. The knowledge passed along becomes one’s own, and it is shared. Her work is even more important when abortion isn’t punishable by law.
“We worked towards decriminalization and we got it, now we have to educate about moral and religious prejudices that make women feel guilty. We want free and safe abortions, physically and emotionally.”
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Daniela Rea is a reporter and author of the book Nadie les pidió perdón; and coauthor of the book La Tropa: Why does a soldier kill? She directed the documentary No sucumbió la eternidad. She writes about the social impacts of violence and care work. She wanted to be a sailor.