by Daniela Pastrana
By 5:00 AM, dozens of women are already lined up outside of this clinic in the Mexican capital. Most come with their mothers, sisters, husbands, friends or boyfriends. A few show up alone.
Sitting on the sidewalk, the women and the people accompanying them try to catch a few winks, in spite of the cold, before dawn breaks and numbers are handed out to the lucky ones. Only the first 30 will be seen today. The rest will have to come back another day.
There are 15 public hospitals in the federal district of the capital that offer safe, legal abortions, but the Beatriz Velasco Reproductive Health Clinic has carried out one-quarter of such procedures since first trimester abortion was legalised by the Mexico City legislature in April 2007.
“The men are great at bringing them here, but not at taking responsibility for supporting their children,” a mother accompanying her young daughter before dawn remarks to IPS.
Standing behind her in the queue, an office worker says this is the third time she’s tried to get a turn, and that no one in her family or at her job knows she’s pregnant.
“No matter what they say, there’s still a lot of prejudice, and they do stigmatise you,” says the young woman.
“We already have two kids, and this year we both lost our jobs, so I just don’t see any other option,” another woman, whose husband’s arm is around her shoulders, says brusquely.
In the last three years, some 65,000 women have visited public health facilities to find out about abortions, and 40,000 have undergone the procedure, the Mexico City health secretariat reported this month.
Of that total, 1,200, or three percent of the cases, came from outside the greater Mexico City area from other states.
Nearly half of these, 550, were able to travel to the capital to get a safe, legal abortion over the last year thanks to the support of a group of young women who work in the Fondo de Aborto para la Justicia Social MARÍA (MARÍA Abortion Fund for Social Justice).
MARÍA (the group’s acronym for Women, Abortion, Reproduction, Information and Accompaniment) was founded in May 2009 to provide information, support and financial assistance to women outside greater Mexico City who want an abortion.
“The aim is to get the Federal District law to reach out farther,” Oriana López, director of operations of MARÍA, told IPS.
MARÍA forms part of the National Network of Abortion Funds, an umbrella group for local abortion funds mainly in the United States, and receives financing from Mexican reproductive health groups.
Since December it has also been building a network of individual donors, who now number just over 200, that has helped give the project financial stability. The organisation has even set up a PayPal account for donations.
The aim of the group now is to give some training to the people who accompany the women to get an abortion, who presently provide “basically logistical support.”
“The concept that this is a right is still very weak,” said López. “Women feel it, more than they actually understand it; it’s like there’s a discrepancy between what they believe and what is right, and what they’ve been told.”
According to the Mexico City government, which has been in the hands of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) since 1997, 83 percent of the abortions that have been carried out were medically induced using abortifacient drugs, 12 percent were performed using vacuum aspiration, and five percent were done by dilation and curettage.
The law legalising abortion in the capital triggered a wave of legal counter-reforms pushed by the most conservative sectors of society in Mexico, led by the local Catholic Church hierarchy and right-wing political leaders, which tightened already strict state legislation against abortion.
As a result, in 18 of Mexico’s 31 states, abortion is now illegal even when the mother’s life is at risk, in cases of rape or incest, or in cases of fetal malformation.
On May 27, the Supreme Court upheld a law that makes it obligatory for all health centres to offer rape victims emergency contraception, also known as the “morning-after pill”, in response to a legal challenge brought by the right-wing governor of the state of Jalisco, Emilio González.
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir — a partner of the U.S.-based group Catholics for Choice — launched the campaign “Otra mirada católica del aborto” (roughly, “a different Catholic approach to abortion”) on May 31, using billboards and radio spots.
Most of the women who turn to the MARÍA Fund for help come from the states of Jalisco, México, Puebla, Veracruz and Oaxaca, in central and southern Mexico.
“We can’t directly air ads in the states, because we would be inviting people to do something that is illegal in some of them,” López explained. “But we have created networks with different organisations and are finding allies in the media.”
Women contact the group either by email, a form that can be filled out on the MARÍA Fund’s web site, or a toll-free telephone number.
“The telephone is best for us, because that way we can talk to the women,” she said.
“We don’t just assume from the start that they want to end their pregnancies,” said the activist, who explained that they offer the women psychological and even spiritual support, in alliance with other organisations, like Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir.
If the pregnant woman decides she wants to abort, she goes to the capital the day before the procedure is scheduled and housed in a hotel near the clinic.
Private clinics are used in special cases, such as for rape victims who require psychological help, or for women who simply cannot miss work, as the public hospitals and clinics only perform abortions on week-days.
According to the National Population Council, a government agency, abortion is the third leading cause of maternal death in Mexico.
Most abortion-related deaths occur among poor, young women, the Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (GIRE – Information Group on Reproductive Choice) reports.
Of the women who have undergone an abortion in the federal district, more than 2,000, or 5.5 percent of the total, were girls or adolescents, and around 300 were under 14.
The MARÍA Fund has supported about 60 minors under 18, although 20 is the average age of the women who turn to the group for help.
“It’s a tough job, because you hear stories that are sometimes really hard to listen to, and you have to be able to detach, because you’re not helping someone if you get sucked down into the mud with them,” López said.
“The aim of the Fund is not to be a welfare-kind of support system, but to provide women with the tools they need to take responsibility for their bodies and their lives, and to help them understand that they are receiving support for exercising a right, not a favour,” she said.