Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion nationwide on Wednesday in a sweeping decision that builds on an earlier ruling giving officials the authority to allow the procedure on a state-by-state basis.
The court struck down the federal penal code that criminalized abortion, deeming it “unconstitutional” and making abortion legally accessible in all federal health institutions across the country. It also ruled against bans on medical providers, including midwives, who perform the procedure.
The ruling in Mexico, a predominantly Catholic country of 130 million people, points to how nations in Latin America are taking a leading role in broadening abortion rights.
“I’m very moved and very proud,” said Rebeca Ramos, executive director of GIRE, a leading abortion rights group that filed an injunction last year against the Mexican regulation from 1931 that criminalized the procedure. “This makes possible what we had not achieved in many years, which is that at least in certain institutions all across the country legal and safe abortion services can be provided.”
The Mexican Supreme Court first ruled that criminalizing abortion was unconstitutional in 2021, but that ruling applied only to the state of Coahuila, which borders Texas. Other Mexican states have already eliminated criminal penalties for the procedure, with Aguascalientes becoming the 12th to do so last week.
Wednesday’s ruling has no effect on local laws, and abortion remains illegal in 20 of the country’s 32 states. But even in those states, women can now legally seek abortion in federal hospitals and clinics. The ruling also prohibits employees at these facilities from being penalized for carrying out abortions.
“Hopefully, this is the preamble so that the court can go state by state helping local legislatures eliminate the crime of abortion, since legislators do not do their job,” said Verónica Cruz, founder of the feminist group Las Libres in Guanajuato, Mexico.
In addition to Mexico, countries such as Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay and Guyana have moved to either legalize or decriminalize abortion. The regional trend stands in contrast to the United States, where the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022 placed the country among a small group of nations making it harder for women to end their pregnancies.
In a statement, Mexico’s Supreme Court said the “criminalization of abortion constitutes an act of gender-based violence and discrimination, as it perpetuates the stereotype that women and people with the capacity to get pregnant can only freely exercise their sexuality to procreate and reinforces the gender role that imposes motherhood as a compulsory destiny.”
Some anti-abortion activists in Mexico were quick to respond to the ruling. “This sends the message to society that the life of a son or daughter can be taken before they are born,” said Marcial Padilla, director of ConParticipación, an anti-abortion group, in comments to ACI Prensa, a Catholic news agency.
The court’s decision reflects profound changes in Mexican society and some of its institutions. Much of the country remains culturally conservative, but decades of feminist activism have reshaped how many people think about women’s rights. Reproductive rights groups have also fought to have abortion cases heard by the Supreme Court.
At the same time, the Supreme Court lost some conservative justices, and a former chief justice, Arturo Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea, who was raised by practicing Catholic parents, emerged as an unexpected champion of abortion rights.
“We’re on a very good path,” said Ms. Ramos. “This is a recognition that women and people with the ability to gestate have agency and we are first-class citizens. That democracy is coming to us, as well.”