MEXICO CITY, May 22 (IPS) - In the last 13 months, 12 of Mexico's 32 states have approved amendments to their state constitutions defining a fertilised human egg as a person with a right to legal protection, and seven other state parliaments are taking steps in the same direction.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say it is a massive conservative reaction to a law decriminalising abortion up to 12 weeks' gestation that went into force in the Mexican capital in April 2007.
The law was upheld in August 2008 by the Supreme Court, which ruled that it did not violate the Mexican constitution.
Behind the wave of reforms of state constitutions, according to critics, is a pact between the hierarchy of the Mexican Catholic Church and the leadership of the most traditional political parties to curb social movements advocating the legalisation of abortion.
"I have no direct evidence, but we have repeatedly heard allegations" that such a pact exists, María Mejía, head of Catholics for the Right to Decide (CDD), told IPS.
According to María Luisa Sánchez, director of the Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE), what is happening is a kind of "revenge" on the part of conservative groups. "These reforms are absurd and put women at risk," she told IPS.
The states where constitutions have been reformed are governed by President Felipe Calderón's conservative National Action Party (PAN) or by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seven decades.
The amendments of the state constitutions have not, so far, been accompanied by changes to the regional criminal codes, which for the most part allow abortion in the case of rape or danger to the mother's life.
But the possibility remains that the criminal codes will be brought into line with the constitutional reforms, Mejía said.
Mexico is a federal nation in which each state has its own constitution and criminal code, although these cannot run counter to the national constitution and criminal code.
In this country of over 107 million people, an estimated 880,000 abortions are carried out annually, according to a study presented in 2008 by the Colegio de México, the Mexico office of the Population Council and the Guttmacher Institute in the United States.
The study found that an average of 33 abortions a year are performed for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44. This figure is higher than the average reported for developing countries, which is 29 abortions a year per 1,000 women of reproductive age.
Most abortions are performed clandestinely, even in cases where they are legal, because the authorities and public health centres put up such barriers that the right to therapeutic abortion under certain circumstances becomes non-existent.
A PAN lawmaker for the central state of Querétaro, Fernando Urbiola, told IPS that the recent reforms of the state constitutions "are simply due to the need to be consistent with the principle of defending human life, which begins at conception."
In Querétaro, which is governed by the PAN, Urbiola chairs the Commission on the Family in the state parliament, and is promoting a modification of the state constitution so that it will protect the fertilised egg from the time of conception. The change could be approved before the end of the year.
Urbiola argues that "unborn children" urgently need legal protection, on a par with any other person, until death. In his view, the wave of reforms will also close the door to euthanasia and recognise men's right to keep alive the eggs they fertilise.
GIRE's Sánchez said that her group is coordinating a series of demonstrations with women's movements in the various states, to urge the Supreme Court to rule on the wave of constitutional changes in the states.
"We hope that the Supreme Court will take up the issue again and give more weight to the right of women to decide about their lives and bodies. The Court must hold another debate and ratify its earlier ruling," said Sánchez.
In the August 2008 ruling, in response to a lawsuit arguing that the decriminalisation of abortion in the capital, governed by the leftwing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled that the law did not violate the constitution.
The Supreme Court verdict was repudiated by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and other conservative sectors.
However, the Calderón administration accepted the decision, although it had previously demanded, through the Attorney-General's Office, that the Mexico City law be repealed.
Now GIRE is asking the Attorney-General's Office to take up the issue again, this time to bring a suit before the Supreme Court alleging the unconstitutionality of the reforms against abortion approved by the states.
According to Mexican law, the Supreme Court deals with cases at the request of the Attorney-General's Office or the state National Human Rights Commission, or on its own initiative.
Mejía, of Catholics for the Right to Decide, also wants the Supreme Court to deal with the issue, but she recognised that this is very unlikely to happen in the short or medium term.
Since April 2007, when abortion in the first three months of pregnancy was decriminalised in Mexico City, just over 20,000 women have exercised this right in public health centres. Nearly 80 percent of them were from the capital.
According to official statistics, 47 percent of the women who requested an abortion in Mexico City were between the ages of 18 and 24, and 21 percent were aged 25 to 29. Nearly seven percent were under 18, and the remainder were over 30.
The great majority of the women who had abortions said they were Catholic, like 90 percent of Mexicans.
Mejía and Sánchez both said that it is illogical for only some women in Mexico to have the right to an abortion, and called for the same rights to be available for all women.
Furthermore, they both said that abortion should be removed from the criminal codes and should be dealt with instead as a public health issue.
No woman is happy to make the decision to have an abortion and no woman seeks an abortion for pleasure, which is "something conservatives just don't understand," and that is why they close the doors to women and their rights, and even worse, threaten them with imprisonment, Mejía said.
The state criminal codes lay down different penalties for women who have abortions, except for victims of rape or when the mother's life is endangered. In some cases, foetal malformation is also accepted as a legal reason for abortion.
In the state of Veracruz, for example, abortion carries a prison sentence of six months to four years; in Jalisco it is four months to one year, in Guanajuato from six months to three years, and in Baja California Sur from two months to two years.
Studies indicate that clandestine abortions are the fourth or fifth cause of death among Mexican women, and that obtaining permission for an abortion is complicated and, in many cases, impossible.
After the August 2008 Supreme Court resolution, GIRE legal adviser Pedro Morales called on state legislators to move from "prohibitive and punitive regimes on abortion to permissive laws compatible with the fundamental rights of women."
Instead, 12 states moved in the opposite direction and made it even more difficult to get a legal abortion, and another seven states may soon follow suit.