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Mexico: Stop Blocking Abortions for Rape Victims

Guanajuato State Denies Access to Legal Procedures and Actively Prosecutes Others Seeking Services

(New York) - Officials in the Mexican state of Guanajuato should stop preventing pregnant rape victims from having abortions, though the law guarantees them access, and should stop prosecuting other women seeking abortion services, Human Rights Watch and Centro Las Libres said today in letters to the state government.

The groups noted that in the full decision published online on March 2, 2009, the Mexican Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Mexico City health law that permits abortion, saying that the law upholds women's rights. Guanajuato should follow that lead and liberalize its abortion laws, the groups said. The letters were sent to the governor, legal, judicial, and health authorities and the human rights ombudsman.

"The Guanajuato government has consistently shown its cruel indifference to the needs of rape victims, even though the law is on their side," said Angela Heimburger, Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch's Women's Rights Division. "On top of that, scores of other women are treated as criminals for trying to get legal and safe medical care to resolve a personal crisis."

Guanajuato permits legal abortion only after rape. But over the past eight years, the state has denied every petition by a pregnant rape victim for abortion services. Over the same period, about 130 persons have been sentenced for seeking or providing illegal abortions.  Hospital workers often report women suspected of having received abortions to the police, instead of focusing on the provision of safe and confidential medical care for women with post-abortion complications.

State legislators in Guanajuato have been debating over the years whether  to make the laws stricter still, in spite of overwhelming evidence that criminalization does nothing to reduce the incidence of abortion, but does make the procedure less safe.

The restrictive law in Guanajuato is at odds with legal developments in other parts of the country. Under the law in Mexico City - a six-hour bus ride from the capital of Guanajuato - women and girls have a legal right to a safe, free abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, regardless of their circumstances. Health officials indicate that about 1,000 women and girls make use of these medical services each month.

"The Health Secretariat in Guanajuato should ensure that their medical personnel are trained to respect the human rights of women and to prevent abuses that threaten their well-being, such as reporting patients to the police," said Verónica Cruz, co-founder of Centro Las Libres in Guanajuato. "And local representatives should introduce reforms to the criminal procedure code that will guarantee access to free and safe legal abortion services for rape victims."

In its conclusions in the March 2 decision about the Mexico City abortion law, the court stated that the law was "ideal to protect women's rights, since the criminalization of pregnancy termination contravenes the freedom of women to decide about their bodies, their physical and mental health, and also their lives." 

In acknowledgement of the Supreme Court's reasoning, and Mexico's international human rights obligations toward women, federal states in Mexico should liberalize their abortion laws to make them consistent with international human rights standards, the groups said in their letters.

"Guanajuato would do well to follow Mexico City's lead and increase public health care information and services for women while removing penalties for all abortion," Heimburger said. "The criminalization of abortion is an affront to a woman's dignity, privacy, and health, and a clear violation of her right not to be discriminated against."

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